It’s natural to feel concerned about an older friend or family member when many people are getting COVID-19, or “Coronavirus.” If they have a limited income or mobility, they may also find it harder to get tested or be treated.
Older adults face special challenges if they live in long-term care facilities, where a virus can spread quickly among residents. Whether you live near your friend or relative or far away, you may need to act promptly to help your loved one avoid getting sick or minimize the potential risks.
Why older adults face extra risks when a virus occurs
Most people have a natural immunity to viruses (such as the flu), which enables them to avoid or recover quickly from an infection. As we get older, however, our immune systems typically become weaker, so it’s often harder for older adults to fight a virus. Older people also tend to have more chronic illnesses, which can further reduce their resistance to infection.
Another complicating factor for older adults is that they often have reduced cough and gag reflexes, which results in increased respiratory problems. COVID-19 has been known to impact respiratory functions, and can make breathing difficult. COVID-19 is considered especially dangerous because is a new, or “novel,” strains of virus, meaning that humans haven’t had much exposure to it, and their immune systems are not well prepared to fight it.
Helping your friend or family member avoid COVID-19
There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19. But this doesn’t mean that you cannot help friends and family members stay safe. When talking with your older friend or relative, encourage them to take the following precautions:
Wash their hands often with soap and water. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also effective. Consider giving your older friend or family member a supply of pocket- or purse-sized hand wipes—this is especially helpful if your friend or relative is on a limited income. Provide boxes of tissues and hand sanitizer to put throughout their home.
Avoid touching the mouth, nose, and eyes. These are areas where it is particularly easy for germs to enter the body. Be sure to wash hands before and after fixing meals and eating.
Sneeze (or cough) into their elbow to prevent spreading germs. Encourage other friends and relatives to follow this practice as well.
Don’t share utensils, drinking glasses, or food. Someone you share with might be carrying COVID-19 but not showing symptoms.
Put used tissues in a wastebasket. To reduce the possibility of reuse, you might give extra boxes of tissues to an older friend or relative who is on a tight budget. Avoid using cloth handkerchiefs. Consider providing a small wastebasket to keep by the chair where the person routinely sits. For someone in a wheelchair, hang a plastic bag on the handlebars for tissue disposal.
Stay away from people who are sick. If the older person is still venturing outside remind them that they need to keep two metres away from everybody outside of their household group.
Maintain good health habits. Encourage older people to get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy diet, stay physically active, manage their stress levels, and drink lots of water or other non-alcoholic fluids.
To decrease the spread of germs, regularly clean doorknobs, faucets, and bathrooms with wipes containing bleach. A daily cleaning before going to bed can help to keep germs at bay. Having a container of cleaning wipes containing bleach will make it easy for your relative or friend to do this.
If your friend or family member develops symptoms
Make sure that your friend or relative contacts her health care provider right away if they develops any COVID-19 symptoms, which include the following:
- dry cough
- body aches
- breathing problems
A doctor can determine whether an older adult needs treatment if they have had these symptoms. If your older relative has a chronic illness, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or asthma, they should seek medical attention at the onset of symptoms so the doctor can determine what course of treatment is appropriate.
If you’re a long-distance caregiver and won’t be able to get your loved one to an emergency room yourself, keep the local police dispatch phone number on hand so that you can call for help if they have these symptoms. You might also research what the protocol is for getting tested for COVID-19 in your friend’ or family member’s area.
If your friend or family member lives in a long-term care facility
Older adults might have a higher risk of catching COVID-19 if they live in long-term care facility, where the virus can spread quickly. Here are a few questions you might ask the staff at your older friend or relative’s long-term care facility. These questions are adapted from a The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services checklist on nursing-home preparedness for pandemic flu.
What protocols do you have in place if a resident tests positive for COVID-19?
Are you ensuring that your staff gets tested for COVID-19? What protocols do you have in place if someone who works at the facility, such as a cleaner, cook, or nurse, tests positive for COVID-19?
Do you screen visitors that are ill, especially children, to keep exposure to COVID-19 limited?
Have you developed a written plan for dealing with COVID-19 that you can share with me? Who is your pandemic-flu response coordinator for the facility and how can I contact them? (This could include limiting social activities, as well as feeding patients in their rooms instead of in the dining hall.)
What is your plan for communicating with families, visitors, and others if COVID-19 is found at the facility?
Is there a provision for health care providers to visit the home to diagnose and treat residents without having to take them to an outside medical office (and potentially expose them to COVID-19 and other illnesses)? If not, is there accessible transportation to take residents to health care provider visits?
Talk with the director at the facility if you have questions about how it would cope with a flu outbreak.
Although you cannot see your older loved one or friend in person, it is important to still be in touch with them. Be creative about it. If they are able, have a virtual meeting through one of the video apps, like Zoom, or do a FaceTime Call, or a traditional call. Send emails or write a letter and/or have the children draw pictures for their loved ones and mail it to them.
Since long-term care facilities have halted visitors at this time, write some letters or draw some pictures and send them to your local nursing home. This can help the older population not feel so alone during this time and it can also help bring a sense of being able to help.
If you have other questions about helping your older friend or family member stay healthy, your assistance program has helpful resources.