How people over 65 can do more to protect themselves from COVID-19

According to the Canadian Public Health Agency, people over 65 are at increased risk of serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19. According to a report by the World Health Organization in February, the global mortality rate is just under four percent and 20.9 percent among those over 80 years of age. People with weakened immune systems and underlying diseases, including many older people, are also at increased risk of being hospitalized. The prognosis can be so bad that a planning document from Turin suggests that hospitals over the age of 80 could refuse medical treatment if the situation in Italy worsens, The Telegraph reported. “This is a very worrying situation for everyone,” said Roger Wong, clinical professor of geriatrics at the University of British Columbia. “I think it is reasonable for seniors to take special care to protect themselves.” While much of the advice for the elderly is similar to that for younger people – don’t travel, stay away from large gatherings, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face – here are some other precautions to take can to decrease the likelihood of a contract with COVID-19.

What if you need medication?

The Canadian Pharmacists Association recommends that anyone who goes to pharmacies to pick up medication be checked over the phone before arriving. The association also advises against hoarding medication, as this could lead to drug shortages. It’s best to go outside rush hour, Wong said, when seniors do other important errands. Some grocery stores and pharmacies even offer opening times for seniors only. If possible, have a healthy family member pick up medication or order from a pharmacy that offers delivery.

Should you cancel medical appointments?

The College of Physicians and Surgeons in Alberta says doctors should consider digital and telehealth, if possible, rather than personal treatments. People with a travel history, cough or fever, or difficulty breathing are asked not to go to clinics. “These visits, these activities should continue,” said Wong, “but a distance of at least two meters … would be important.”

What about food?

Nick Etches, a medical health officer at Alberta Health Services, said people should “think about the seniors in your life and how can you best support them?” and that could mean helping with errands. If seniors have someone who can get food for them, that would be good, said Ameeta Singh, a clinical professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta. If not, you should take all other precautions: wash your hands after the visit and make sure they are as far away from other people in the shop as possible. “I think unfortunately it looks like we’re at this point,” said Singh. “At least for the next couple of weeks.”

What is actually safe?

Given the difficulty of actually sitting at home for the foreseeable future, there are some things that are still safe. “Suddenly becoming sedentary is probably more damaging to health than anything else,” said Adrian Wagg, Chair of Aging in Health in the Geriatrics Department at the University of Alberta. “You should stay as physically active as you can.” He suggested that walking outdoors as long as you keep a reasonable distance from others can be a good way for healthy seniors to stay active. Singh agrees, provided you are wearing the right shoes: “For example, I don’t go to the gym anymore, but I will still exercise outside, climb stairs, or walk.”

It would be good if seniors have someone who can get groceries for them.

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What about babysitting grandchildren?

Not a good idea. It is believed that children are more asymptomatic than adults and yet could spread the disease, Singh said, so they should probably not be around the elderly. “I know people will have a hard time with this,” said Singh. Etches recommended that “seniors consider limiting their babysitting duties to reduce the risk of exposure.”

What about those who are not doing well?

“People who visit seniors … they may carry and spread the virus,” said Wong. This means that it is important for everyone to have good hygiene and stay away from vulnerable seniors if they have symptoms or a recent travel story. Those who have seniors in their lives should consider other contact options. For seniors with special needs, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, “it is a very difficult situation because they may not understand what is going on … they may not be able to fully assess the impact or extent of COVID-19,” said Wong. It is important to keep the message simple. He suggested saying, “Look, there’s something going on, there’s an infection, we want to protect you.” Explain that grandchildren contact them in other ways and assure them that they are safe and loved. “It is important to remember that while we do things to protect the elderly, it does not mean that we cut them out,” said Wong. “Social distance is important, but it doesn’t mean social isolation,” said Wong. This can include using phone, Skype, FaceTime and social media to stay in touch.

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