Seniors and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a scary and trying time for everyone around the globe but the threat of the virus looms greatest for the oldest members of our communities.
The CDC reports that “as you get older, your risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases”, with “the greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 being among those aged 85 or older.” Severe illness with COVID-19 could result in hospitalization, intensive care, or even death. In fact, “8 out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been among adults aged 65 years and older.”
These alarming statistics easily overshadow the other impacts that COVID-19 is having on elderly populations when in fact, the pandemic is taking a grueling toll on this demographic’s health that extends beyond the symptoms and outcomes of a COVID-19 infection.
Negative Health Impacts of COVID on Older Adults
Mental Health Impacts
COVID is affecting older people’s daily routines, from their care and support to their social lives, and even the way they are perceived by society. The requirement of staying home, cancelled social activities, reduced physical activity, and “anxiety/fear of illness and death (their own and others)” can all have a detrimental impact on the mental health of older persons.
Adding to the toll on mental health is loneliness and isolation. “In June 2020, more than half (56%) of older adults reported feeling isolated from others compared to 27% in 2018.” Loneliness is often referred to as a silent killer. “Past studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative effect on health and wellbeing”, equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. With many seniors living alone or in facilities with strict COVID protocols limiting social visits and activities, it is understandable that their mental health has suffered over this year.
Physical Health Impacts
The COVID-19 Pandemic is impacting older people’s physical health beyond infection with the disease.
The CDC estimates that “41% of U.S. adults have avoided medical care because of concerns about COVID-19″ with 12% avoiding medical attention, despite the need for urgent or emergency care. This is in addition to the disruptions made to routine healthcare appointments for things like prescription refills, mental health treatment, and various therapies.
Delayed or unsought medical treatments can lead to serious, long-term negative health outcomes.
Another consequence of increased social isolation is an increased risk of falls and fall-related injuries. Lock downs and quarantines restrict mobility and “affect the physical activity levels of older adults, increasing sedentary behavior and physical inactivity…Physical inactivity may increase and exacerbating the risk of disabilities and it is one of the risk factors leading to falls.” Ultimately, this will quickly contribute to higher fall risk in older adults.
Combine this increased fall risk with increased social isolation, and the severity of injuries caused by falls also increases. Isolated seniors who experience a fall will not be found and receive rapid healthcare, aggravating their injuries and putting them at greater risk for death or disability. These effects will be felt long-term, even after the threat of the pandemic has subsided.
A final and dire impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase in violence against older people.
“Violence against older people…has risen sharply since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and imposition of lockdown measures.” Many factors including staff reductions in long-term care facilities, increased social isolation, financial stress on caretakers, and an increase in substance use/abuse are all contributing factors that aggravates the issue of violence against the elderly.
With all of these additional challenges to older peoples’ health caused by COVID-19, it is imperative to create opportunities to foster healthy aging during the pandemic.
So, how can you keep the older people in your life stay safe?
4 Ways to Keep Them Safe
1) Make a care plan.
The first way to protect your older loved ones is a practical matter: create a care plan. Discuss with them and their health-care team how their health needs can be addressed during the pandemic. Can appointments be done virtually or over the phone? Do changes need to be made to a treatment plan including postponing non-urgent care?
If your loved one relies on a caregiver (or if that caregiver is you), who do you trust to take on the care responsibilities in case the caregiver falls sick?
Talk to your loved one “about what matters most to them regarding care and support”, including medical treatment, in case something happens and they are unable to make decisions. Write all of this down and share it with healthcare providers and trusted family or friends.
2) Physically distance but don’t socially distance.
Check in regularly with the older people in your life. Phone calls, video chats, and other virtual meetings are safe and effective ways to stay in touch. They also provide isolated older people with something to look forward to. Mental stimulation and emotional connection are crucial for maintaining good mental health during this time.
If you do visit them in person, practice physical distancing. Visiting outdoors, in large, well-ventilated spaces, and in smaller numbers are all ways to accommodate physical distancing.
If meetings are taking place indoors, arrange tables and chairs to allow adequate distance between visitors and try to avoid close contact such as shaking hands, elbow bumps, or hugs. Instead, wave and use verbal greetings. The CDC suggests keeping a list of people who visit you and your older loved ones, to assist with contact tracing if someone becomes ill.
3) Encourage them to stay active.
As mentioned above, physical inactivity may lead to deaths and disabilities in the coming months and years. Encouraging and enabling older adults to stay active may reduce or avoid many of these deaths and disabilities.
Physical activity is beneficial in many ways including:
- Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes (all health conditions shown to aggravate COVID19),
- Improve the ability to perform Activities of Daily Living,
- Strengthen bones and muscles, reducing the impact of accidental fall events, and;
- Help to manage stress/reduce anxiety and help aid sleep.
If possible, encourage your older loved ones to go for walks. For older adults who are isolated or afraid to go outside, home-based exercises could offer several health benefits. There are many online resources including low impact and seated exercises.
It is important to remember that staying physically active and practicing healthy habits throughout this time will not only have positive physical health impacts, but also improve mental health and help to manage stress.
4) Wear a mask.
Lastly, a step that can be taken to protect not only yourself and your loved ones, but your entire community, is to wear a mask. Masks may slow the spread of the virus by preventing the transmission of germs from one person to another, especially those who may have the virus and do not know it.
COVID-19 has made 2020 a trying year, both mentally and physically, and older adults bear the brunt of the pandemic.
Do what you can to protect yourself and your loved ones and remember to follow the recommendations of your local and regional health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Learn more about the risks among people who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities and about CDC’s guidance for nursing homes and long-term care facilities.” – CDC