We spoke to two geriatricians and pulled guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assemble what people 60 and up need to know about the novel coronavirus.
What’s your risk level
Infectious disease experts define “older adults” as anyone age 60 and up, so people in that age group should be cautious.
It’s possible to contract the virus at a younger age — it’s just more dangerous in older adults because the immune system weakens with age, said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of Geriatrics for the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto.
What precautions you should take now
Cancel all non-essential doctor’s appointments, said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an associate professor in the Geriatrics Division of the University of California-San Francisco’s Department of Medicine.
- Whether it’s a standard check-up, a follow-up appointment for a stable condition or an elective procedure, if it can wait, then it should.
- If you have an important appointment coming up, consider doing it in a video call or from your smartphone. Telehealth tech lets physicians confer with patients who may not be able to leave their homes.
- Tell a friend, a loved one, a co-worker or a neighbor if you’re concerned about the illness. Appoint one of them as an emergency contact who you can call with concerns or requests for help.
What you should stock up on
The CDC recommends keeping enough groceries and toiletries on hand to last you a “prolonged period of time.” There’s no timeline for the Covid-19 outbreak, though, so think basic.
- Stock up on toothpaste, detergent, water filters, etc.
- Make meals and freeze them if you’re concerned about food.
Older adults living in communities where the virus has spread should take extra precautions.
- Avoid public places where crowds may gather or poorly ventilated buildings where the risk of transmission is higher, the CDC said.
- You don’t need to shut yourself off from public life — just be vigilant when you enter it.
- Older adults should still exercise and eat right, just as they would at any other time of the year, Sinha said.
How you should handle travel
The CDC advises against non-essential plane travel for older adults. Several US airlines have already slashed their flight schedules for the next few months.
What you need to know about self-isolation
The CDC recommends that high-risk groups in communities with outbreaks stay home as much as possible and that people who believe they’re sick isolate themselves.
But long-term isolation can be damaging. Perissinotto studies the effects of social isolation in older adults, and she said that loneliness and depression are “huge risks for mortality.”
“I don’t think the solution of totally being devoid of social contact is the answer,” she said. “Yes, there is some prudence we need to have in social distancing, but we also have to be careful to not isolate more — it can be very detrimental.”
So if you need to isolate yourself:
- Don’t cut off contact with family or friends.
- Keep in touch to update them on your condition and curb boredom.
Just exercise caution. It’s an individual choice, so if skipping out would reduce some anxiety, that’s fine, too.
And if you do go, be sure to wash your hands with soap.
What your family can do
To help you, your family should think ahead.
Perissinotto recommends that family, friends and neighbors of older adults do some inventory in case the older adult needs to isolate at home.
- Does this person have what they need to spend an extended period of time inside? If not, help them prepare supplies.
- If their caregiver calls in sick, is there someone who can step in to take care of them? Have a plan in place to make sure they’ll get care if they need it.
- If they have a telemedicine appointment coming up, will they know how to access it? Set up the tech and show them how to use it to speak with their physician.
And, of course, sick family members should not visit — stick to a phone or video call. And if a younger, healthy family member has potentially come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, they should self-isolate and avoid seeing older, susceptible family members.
What you should consider about nursing homes
It’s natural to be fearful for family in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, Sinha said: Older people and people with chronic illnesses, both high-risk groups, are living together in tight quarters.
The good news: Most nursing homes and long-term care facilities are prepared for pandemics, Perissonotto said.
The CDC provides training for long-term care facilities on how to operate during pandemics. If you’re concerned about the safety of your family member or want to learn about the protocol their facility is following, contact staff at the facility.
What you should do when visiting loved ones at nursing homes
This depends on whether the nursing home is accepting visitors.
The CDC doesn’t recommend a blanket-ban on visitors — just those who show respiratory symptoms, like coughing and sneezing. The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine recommends that facilities screen visitors before entering in outbreak areas.
And it goes without saying, but if you’re sick, don’t visit.
What to do if you’re sick
If you think you have the novel coronavirus: Stay home and call your physician. If they think you should come in for a test, limit your interaction with other people and don’t use public transportation. They may provide a face mask for you to wear while in their office.
If you’re diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and your illness is mild: Your physician may advise that you stay home until you recover. If your symptoms are more severe, you may be hospitalized so physicians can monitor your condition.