How Does COVID-19 Affect Older Adults?
Six ways to prevent illness, social isolation and loneliness
Older adults – especially those with medical conditions – have been hit hard by COVID-19 and need extra support.
Those age 65 and older account for 80 percent of coronavirus-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People 85 and older have the highest risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Many seniors are staying safe by staying home and social distancing, but are now at increased risk of social isolation and loneliness, which can result in depression, anxiety and other health problems.
Fortunately, many services are available to help seniors stay safe and socially engaged during the pandemic. These services include food delivery, online exercise programs and other free or low-cost offerings through public health services.
“We want our seniors, especially those most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, to stay home as much as possible during the pandemic and to have a support system in place that can help ensure their safety and well-being at home,” says Alexander Meilan, DO, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.
Dr. Meilan recommends the following:
1. Don’t hesitate to seek emergency and non-emergency care
Don’t delay going to the emergency room or calling 911 for any medical emergency. Emergency departments have COVID-19 prevention plans to keep their patients and staff safe.
Staying in contact with your doctor is important especially for seniors with chronic conditions. In many cases, non-emergency visits can be done via telemedicine. In some cases, an in-person visit is necessary, such as getting an annual flu shot.
Caregivers can help their seniors download a telemedicine app to their smart phones or tablets and teach them how to use it. Make sure the app has privacy features to protect patient health information.
2. Stay connected, prevent loneliness
Older adults should have a plan to safely stay in touch with family and friends during the pandemic to help prevent the ill-effects of social isolation and loneliness.
“Older adults should have someone they can reach out to if they need help getting food, medicine and other supplies. If they live alone, regular human contact can mean a lot to their health and well-being,” says Dr. Meilan.
Regularly scheduled phone calls, video conferences, texting and emails can help make up for a lack of in-person contact.
Caregivers can help their seniors set up and understand video conferencing options, such as FaceTime or Zoom.
3. Stay physically active
Getting exercise may seem harder with gyms closed or concerns about going to one when they open. Many options are available to stay active without risk of exposure during the pandemic.
Find fun and creative ways to stay active at home. Join an online exercise class or find an exercise video for seniors on YouTube.
Go out for a walk. Make sure to wear a mask, especially if physical distancing is going to be difficult. Caregivers can join their seniors in a walk but should also take precautions.
Staying active may be harder for older adults with medical conditions that limit their ability to regularly exercise. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week but says those who cannot do this much should stay as physically active as their abilities and conditions will allow.
According to the CDC, regular exercise:
Improves balance and reduces risk of falling
Improves joint mobility
Extends years of active life
Helps prevent weak bones and muscle loss
Delays onset of cognitive decline.
4. Check delivery and pick up options
For those who have concerns about going out to buy groceries due to COVID-19 or who lack transportation or have limited physical mobility, look for grocery stores that offer pickup and delivery services to reduce their risk of exposure. Ask if they offer discounts or free delivery for seniors. Consider asking a neighbor or other family member to do the shopping for you.
For those who prefer to shop in person, look for stores that offer senior-only hours. Make sure they require customers to wear face covering. Get in and out of the store as quickly as possible.
Caregivers who shop for food for their seniors can set aside time for conversation after delivering groceries to help prevent loneliness.
5. Prevent falls at home
More time at home may increase the chances of an accidental fall that results in injury. Learn how to reduce the risk of falling at home.
Make home safer, for example, by removing loose rugs, adding handrails to stairs and hallways if needed and keeping adequate lighting in dark areas.
Schedule a risk assessment for falls with health care provider.
Stay active, focus on balance, strength training and flexibility exercises.
Schedule annual vision and hearing exams.
Manage medications, understand their side effects.
6. Make a list of resources
Create a list of organizations to contact for information, health care services including mental health or counseling as well as food and other support.
San Diego County’s Aging and Independence Services provides an array of services, including access to home-based support services, meals and counseling help.
Elderhelp of San Diego provides community-based solutions through staff and volunteers committed to helping older adults live independently in their own homes.
Stay at Home. Save Lives. Check in is a statewide campaign in California to help combat isolation and food insecurity among people 65 and older.
AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect program provides information, and options for older people to stay socially connected.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a hotline, 800-662-HELP (4357), to help people find counseling services in their area.
Healthy Life is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information, or for a physician referral, visit www.scripps.org or call 1-800-Scripps.