Health and Healthcare Systems

Coronavirus and older people: 6 tips for families

Gene Campbell talks through a window with his wife of more than 60 years, Dorothy Campbell, at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. March 5, 2020.  REUTERS/David Ryder     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2WDF90QRSI

The greater risk of Covid-19 to older people has left many nervous and in search of answers Image: REUTERS/David Ryder

Erwin Tan
Director, Health Thought Leadership, AARP
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  • As communities plan for possible Covid-19 infections, they need to consider the risks of older people – this group is at greater risk;
  • Actions everyone, including older people, can take include keeping regular medications and other supplies well-stocked and staying sanitized;
  • Those who live in multigenerational homes or who have caregiving responsibilities should make additional plans.

Data from China, where Covid-19 first spread suggests older people and people with chronic medical conditions may be at higher risk of severe illness from it. The potential danger, along with the fear of its spread in communities across the world, has left many older people and families nervous and in search of answers.

Have you read?

While we have no control over certain risk factors such as age and while questions remain unanswered, there is much we can do to prepare and protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a dedicated Covid website and people should refer to their national public health agency’s website. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US federal agency tasked with detecting and responding to new and emerging health threats, has released guidance for “People at Risk for Serious Illness from Covid-19”.

Every country is different and reviewing information from your country’s lead public health organization can be extremely helpful and beneficial. Meanwhile, here is a further look at important coronavirus-related information concerning with a specific focus on older individuals.

Understanding the risk

As communities plan for possible Covid-19 infections, they need to consider the risks of older people and people with weakened immune systems due to underlying health conditions. These people are at greater risk for serious infection or even death from Covid-19. We are not sure why Covid-19 infections are worse for older patients. It may be because as we age, we experience a gradual deterioration of our immune system, making it harder for our body to fight off diseases and infection.


Many older people are also more likely to have chronic medical conditions that can hinder the body’s ability to cope with and recover from illness. Possible risk factors for the virus progressing to severe illness may include but are not limited to older age (65 years or older) and underlying chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, cancer, heart failure, cerebrovascular disease, renal disease, liver disease, diabetes and immunocompromising conditions.

In the US, the current CDC guidance is for people aged 60 and older and people with chronic medical conditions to avoid crowds as much as possible. During a Covid-19 outbreak in their community, they should stay home as much as possible.

The elderly are most at risk from coronavirus
The elderly are most at risk from coronavirus Image: Statista

With these factors in mind, here are some actions everyone, particularly older individuals, can take:

1. Keep your regular medications and other supplies well-stocked. Given the vulnerability of older individuals and those with chronic conditions, the CDC recommends that people in the US all have access to several weeks of medications and supplies in case they need to stay home. Monitor food and other medical supplies needed and create a plan in the event that such resources become depleted. For families, know what medications your loved one is taking and see if you can help them have extra to hand.

2. Stay sanitized. Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is a top recommendation, as is carrying sanitizing hand rubs for the times you can’t wash your hands. Make sure your home and workplaces are clean and wiped with disinfectant regularly, with particular attention to electronics.

3. Respond to multigenerational living situations. Households, like communities, may be multigenerational, with different people at different levels of risk residing under one roof. Households, therefore, will need to consider the risks of all its members. One important consideration is that many older adults live in homes where other members, such as children, may have frequent colds. Families can institute changes now by not sharing personal items like food, water bottles and utensils. If possible, choose a room in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from those who are healthy. If possible, also choose a bathroom for the sick person to use.


4. Develop intentional caregiver plans. Older adults may be caregivers or may receive care themselves. Caregivers and care recipients should discuss their preparation plans, including how to stay in touch via phone or email. Determine who can provide you with care if your caregiver gets sick. Caregivers and their care recipients will need to work together to make sure they do not expose each other to Covid-19 in the event it has emerged in their community or if either is already showing symptoms. If you are a caregiver for someone living in a care facility, monitor the situation, ask about the health of the other residents frequently, and know the plan if there is an outbreak.

5. Communicate with providers and those close to you. Now is the time to talk with the people who need to be included in your plan. You may need to ask for help if you become sick. Meet with household members, other relatives and friends to discuss your response should Covid-19 infections occur in your community. If your neighbourhood has a website or social media page, consider joining it to stay connected to neighbours, information and resources. Anyone with symptoms should follow the recommendations from their nation’s lead public health organization. They should stay home and call their health care provider to inform them of their symptoms. People who live alone should have plans in place, even prior to the onset of any symptoms, for friends, family and healthcare providers to safety check on them and provide help if they do, in fact, develop symptoms or become sick.

6. Keep abreast of essential, up-to-date information. The situation with Covid-19 is changing rapidly. For example, in some areas, China has moved from in-home quarantine and isolation to dedicated facilities for suspect cases and others for confirmed cases. That means everyone should find and regularly check a trusted information source such as the WHO’s dedicated website or their national public health agency.

AARP continues to work with public health authorities to identify specific coronavirus-related issues relevant to the over 50s. Meantime, in this setting of well-founded concern, occasionally unfounded fears and rapidly evolving dynamics, it’s always important to remember your health basics for a strong mind and body: maintain a healthy lifestyle, which includes engaging in moderate exercise, keeping a healthy diet and getting regular sleep.

Household clusters of Covid-19 infections demonstrate the virus can spread more easily among people living under the same roof. However, with planning, and by incorporating additional steps as more information emerges, together we can try to minimize the impact of the Covid-19.

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