Warding Off Loneliness
Adults over age 65 are at higher risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19 because immune systems weaken with age. While physical isolation is one of the primary ways to protect yourself, it increases the risk of loneliness and other issues. Northwestern Medicine Geriatrician Lee A. Lindquist, MD, MPH, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on seniors and how to care for the seniors in your life.
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Elderly Population
Older individuals are more vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly those with other underlying health issues like heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Additionally, patients with dementia or cognitive impairment may not be able to communicate their symptoms, as they may become forgetful or are unable to express what they are feeling. This can be challenging for caregivers who are already struggling to balance how to care for their loved one while practicing physical distancing to reduce the risk of spreading infection.
Staying Careful, but Staying Connected
If possible, seniors should stay inside their home and avoid crowds. If they do leave home, they should maintain a safe physical distance and wear a face mask. As their caregiver, you also need to take precautions. Wash your hands frequently, wear a face mask around them, and clean and disinfect high-traffic surfaces. Avoid hugging, kissing and touching your loved one.
If they have a regularly scheduled appointment, consider calling ahead to ask what precautions are in place. At Northwestern Medicine, several measures are in place for patient safety. For example, everyone is given a mask at the entrance and screened for illness before entering the building, and seating and signage in common areas reinforces safe physicial distances.
Even in isolation, older adults still need to stay active. “Aging-in-place has taken on a new meaning. We are seeing increases in falls, fractures and depression,” says Dr. Lindquist. “It is important that older adults stay home but also vital that we encourage them to exercise.”
Options to stay active at home:
- Walking (outdoors for fresh air, or doing laps in the basement of your home or in the hallways of your building)
- Gentle, seated stretches (use light hand weights for strength-training benefits)
You can also encourage activities to keep the mind active, like going through old photos, doing puzzles, reading or trying craft projects. And now is a good time to remove fall hazards such as throw rugs and cords, add grab bars and non-slip mats in the bathroom, and fix any weak railings or broken steps.
While physical safety is important, you also need to help protect your loved one’s mental health by guarding against loneliness. “It is essential for seniors to stay socially engaged, while maintaining appropriate physical distance, to stimulate their minds and improve mental health,” says Dr. Lindquist.
Find ways to stay connected while limiting the amount of physical exposure. Family can stay connected through phone calls, writing letters, scheduling weekly online video calls or even visiting through windows. This is also a good time for older adults to learn how to use social media and texting. Delivery services can be used to keep prescription medications and food stocked.
While it’s important to keep your loved one safe and healthy, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. If you’re a caregiver, chances are you’re already balancing many new demands on your time and challenging situations. Protect your own mental health by limiting your exposure to the news and keeping a routine as much as possible.
Continue to monitor yourself and your loved one for any symptoms of COVID-19, and if you develop any, call your primary care physician.