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

Nursing homes in Nova Scotia are preparing for possible cases of COVID-19. 
ERIC WYNNE/Chronicle Herald
ERIC WYNNE/Chronicle Herald - Saltwire

People over 65 have an increased risk of severe disease if they contract COVID-19, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. And, while the global mortality rate is just under four per cent, for those over 80, it’s 20.9 per cent, according to a February report from the World Health Organization. People with compromised immune systems and underlying medical conditions, including many elderly people, also have an increased risk of hospitalization. The prognosis can be so dire that, if the situation gets worse in Italy, a planning document from Turin suggests hospitals might deny medical treatment to those over the age of 80, reported The Telegraph. “This is a very concerning situation for everyone,” said Roger Wong, a clinical professor in geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia. “I do think it is reasonable for seniors to take extra care in protecting themselves.” While much of the advice for the elderly is similar to that offered to younger people — don’t travel, stay away from large gatherings, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face — here are a few more precautions that can be taken to decrease the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.

What if you need medications?

The Canadian Pharmacists Association is recommending that all people going to pharmacies to pick up medications be screened over the phone before arriving; the association also recommends against hoarding medications, as it could trigger drug shortages. It’s best to go at off-peak hours, Wong said, when seniors are running other essential errands. Some grocery stores and pharmacies are even offering seniors-only hours. If possible, get a healthy family member to pick up medication, or order from a pharmacy that offers delivery.

Should you cancel medical appointments?

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta is saying that doctors should consider digital and tele-health if possible, instead of in-person treatments. Those with a travel history, cough or fever, or difficulty breathing, are asked to not go to clinics. “Those visits, those activities, should continue,” Wong said, but “keeping a distance of at least two metres … would be important.”

What about groceries?

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

What is actually safe?

Given how difficult it is to actually sit at home for the foreseeable future, there are some things that are still safe. “Becoming suddenly sedentary is probably worse for your health than anything else,” said Adrian Wagg, the chair in health ageing in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Alberta. “They should remain as physically active as they possibly can be.” He suggested that walks out of doors — so long as you’re staying an appropriate distance away from others — can be a good way for healthy seniors to remain active. Singh agrees, provided you wear the right shoes: “I’m no longer going to the gym, for example, but I’m still going to exercise outside, doing stairs or walking.”

What about babysitting grandkids?

Not a great idea. Children are believed to be more likely to be asymptomatic than adults, and could still spread the disease, Singh said, so they probably shouldn’t be around the elderly. “I know that people are going to have a tough time with this one,” Singh said. Etches recommended that “seniors consider limiting their babysitting duties to reduce their risk of exposure.”

What about those who aren’t well?

“People who go visit seniors … they may actually be carrying and spreading the virus,” Wong said. This means it’s important for everyone to have good hygiene and stay away from vulnerable seniors if they have symptoms or a recent travel history. Those who have seniors in their lives should consider using other ways of contacting them. For seniors who have special needs, such as those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, “it is a very difficult situation because they may not understand what is going on … they may not fully appreciate the impact or the extent of COVID-19,” Wong said. It’s important to keep the message simple. He suggested saying: “Look, there’s something going on right now, there’s an infection, we want to protect you.” Explain that grandkids will contact them another way and reassure them that they are safe and loved. “It is important to remember that while we are doing things to protect the seniors, it does not mean we are cutting them out,” Wong said. “Social distancing is important, but it does not mean social isolation,” Wong said. This could include using the phone, Skype, FaceTime and social media to stay in touch.

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