Coronavirus (COVID-19) and your elderly relatives

You’ve probably read by now that the current coronavirus outbreak presents a much greater risk to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions in comparison to the wider population. Naturally, this is unsettling for those who have elderly mums, dads and loved ones.

Among the confusion, it’s important to take a balanced approach to visiting, helping or caring for your elderly relative. With so much uncertainty and conflicting information, here at Elder, we wanted to provide you with a guide that runs through some of the most frequently asked questions about how COVID-19 impacts the elderly.


What’s the Government advice for coronavirus and the elderly?

The Government’s advice is for the whole population to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Those over the age of 70 or with an underlying health condition are most at risk from the virus. They should not leave the home, even for groceries, unless they’re unable to get help. If they do leave the home, they should practice social distancing.

Self-isolation

The Government’s advice is that everybody should self-isolate and avoid unnecessary social contact until the epidemic has passed. That means staying indoors and not having visitors in all but very essential circumstances.

Where possible, people should use delivery services for groceries and prescriptions. If these aren’t available, you’re still able to leave your house to help them, even with the new lockdown rules. If you’re unable to do so, it could be a good idea to alert a neighbour, a local voluntary group or consider putting a professional carer in place.

Social distancing

For those who have no option but to leave the house, they should practice ‘social distancing.’ This means remaining at least two metres away from anyone else. This prevents potential contact with droplets that could contain the virus from causing infection.

Shielding

In the most extreme cases, the Government has called for ‘shielding’. This is a severe form of self-isolation applying to those who are categorised as ‘extremely vulnerable’. These people are ‘strongly advised to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact.’

Those recommended to follow this course of action are being sent a letter to let them know that they’ve been categorised as ‘extremely vulnerable’.

Personal hygiene

When it comes to personal hygiene, the advice is that washing your hands tops the agenda. This is the same when it comes to the elderly:

Wash hands using soap and water thoroughly for at least 20 seconds.

Capture coughs and sneezes in a disposable tissue, throwing it away immediately.

Avoid touching any part of the face, specifically your eyes, nose and mouth.

Domestic hygiene (please see the guidance below)

Along with personal hygiene comes domestic hygiene. Here are three things you, your loved one or their carer should keep on top of:

1. Keeping the house generally tidy. If your loved one does become infected, there may not be the opportunity to do a deep clean.

2. Cleaning surfaces often, ideally using a bleach-based spray (depending on the surface), as this is highly effective at killing viruses. As a rule, the more a surface is touched, the more often it should be cleaned.

3. Doing the laundry frequently, as dirty garments can hold the virus. Any dirty washing should not be shaken or disturbed, as this can release the virus into the air.

How serious is coronavirus for the elderly?

Generally, the older you are, the more serious the condition can be. Elderly people – especially those over the age of 85 – are in a higher risk category. This means COVID-19 is very serious and all advised precautions should be taken to minimise risk of infection.

Additionally, those with any pre-existing symptoms that weaken the respiratory or immune system, such as hypertension, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes face an increased risk. As do those recovering from cancer or a recent transplant.

For 85% of people who contract the virus – and the vast majority of those in higher-risk groups – the symptoms will be mild. Many may simply confuse it for a common cold or mild flu.

In total, around 15% of those infected with coronavirus go on to develop severe symptoms. These include problems with breathing, low levels of oxygen in the blood and fibrosis of the lungs. It’s very common for those experiencing complications to develop pneumonia, which is an inflammation of the lungs that can inhibit breathing.

In 5% of cases, these issues can become critical. In these circumstances, sepsis, acute respiratory distress syndrome and organ failure may be likely. These are all treated in an intensive care unit (ICU), which is why the Government is currently planning a large expansion of ICU beds.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), current figures show over 96% of the total population and 80-90% of the over 80s will make a full recovery. However, these are based on the number of confirmed cases and the number of associated deaths.

Realistically, many more people with cold-like symptoms, such as coughs and sneezes, will have had the condition without being tested for it. This means realistically, it’s likely to be closer to 99% of people who survive.

How to tell the difference between coronavirus and the flu?

One of the most difficult things about COVID-19 is identifying it when it shares so many symptoms with seasonal flu. Typically, those infected have experienced a particularly dry and continuous cough, as well as fever – identified as a temperature above 38 degrees celsius.

Those with coronavirus don’t often experience other symptoms of flu, such as headaches, vomiting and diarrhoea. Whatever symptoms your loved one is showing, it’s important they follow the Government advice of self-isolation.

How do you treat COVID-19 in the elderly?

If symptoms are minor, as they are for the vast majority of people, the NHS recommends those familiar, common-sense measures we often take when we’re feeling under the weather. These include getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of water and using over-the-counter painkillers if required.

Bear in mind, if your loved one’s condition deteriorates – such as them having breathing difficulties – or symptoms don’t go away within seven days, you should call the NHS on 111. They will advise on how to proceed.

Beyond treatment, it’s also really important to ensure your loved one does their bit to prevent the spread of infection – by removing themself from any unnecessary social contact and staying indoors. Of course, that also means maintaining good personal hygiene.

How do you get a test for COVID-19?

If you feel your loved one requires testing for COVID-19, the first thing you need to do is call 111. The NHS will triage the case. If your loved one is showing severe symptoms, or their symptoms have worsened over the course of seven days, they’ll likely be tested.

This is a swab test in which the results are ready within 72 hours. This can be taken in hospital, in a specialist drive-through testing clinic or coronavirus testing pod. However, if you feel your loved one needs to be tested, they should – under no circumstances – just turn up. All testing is done by appointment, following a call to 111.

Despite criticism, the UK is already testing many more potential coronavirus patients than many other European nations and has recently committed to testing up to 10,000 every day.

Efforts are ongoing to create tests that can deliver results at the ‘bed-side’ and, separately, tests to reveal whether someone has built up immunity to the virus.

Should elderly people stay home and self-isolate?

The latest advice is that everyone should stay in their home as much as possible, leaving the house only for exercise once a day or to get essential supplies such as groceries.

Before the “lockdown”, as it is commonly referred to, the Government had already made a specific recommendation regarding those over the age of 70 to self-isolate in their own homes for 12 weeks – with the exception of leaving the house for exercise, or essential visits.

Your loved one should take this seriously. We would advise:

Avoiding trips to public spaces such as shops, the chemist and the GP surgery. Instead they should have someone else go and drop supplies off in a secure place for them to collect.

Avoiding face-to-face contact with people unless absolutely necessary – replacing it with technology where possible.

Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or hand sanitizer if that’s not possible.

Throwing away any used tissues.

Ultimately, the risk of harm from social isolation is also significant and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s important that elderly people are in regular contact with a reliable support network, both to stave off any feelings of loneliness/depression and to ensure their wellbeing is monitored.

Is it still safe to visit them?

While you should be more proactive than ever in terms of keeping in touch with your loved one, the Government advice is that you should stay in your home, avoid face-to-face social contact with anyone over the age 70. That includes all but essential visits.

Of course, in certain circumstances, it’s unavoidable. However, when doing so you should undertake all precautions in terms of personal hygiene:

Remove outer garments, such as your coat and shoes, immediately upon arrival.

Maintain a distance of at least two metres (where possible) from your relative.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before, during and after your visit.

Prof William Keevil, Professor of Environmental Healthcare, University of Southampton says that ultimately ‘the longer the stay the greater the potential risk to your host.’ So, try and keep the time you’re visiting to a minimum and largely to ensure they’re ok.

For longer conversations, it’s a good idea to ensure they’re set up to communicate via telephone or video call. If you’re able to, it could be a good idea to buy them a tablet or mobile device to encourage more frequent communication. This will help reduce feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

Should they still go to the doctors?

Under the new rules on staying at home and away from others, it is permitted to leave the house for a ‘medical need’. However, this should only be done if absolutely necessary and varies on a case-by-case basis.

For any pre-existing appointments, you, your loved one or their carer should call ahead and check whether it is still happening and whether it’s entirely necessary.

How do I prepare for coronavirus?

As with anything, minimising risks of coronavirus is all about planning ahead. This means you need to make sure there’s someone close at hand to help your loved one in the event of them contracting the virus. Here are some important areas for which it’s best to think ahead:

Essential errands: Whether it’s you, a professional carer – or even a neighbour – someone needs to be able to run errands, such as grocery shopping and the collection of prescriptions. They’re allowed under the lockdown measure as it’s an important way of reducing the chances of the elderly contracting the virus. Face-to-face contact should still be avoided, these can be left in a secure place for their collection.

Plan a routine: As frustrating as the lockdown is, it shouldn’t mean completely letting go of physical activity. You should chat with your loved one about adding physical elements in their daily life – even if it’s just a walk around the garden.

Communication: As it’s wise to limit face-to-face contact, you should put a plan in place to communicate with your loved one on a frequent basis via telephone or video call. A good way of doing this is establishing a regular routine. You should also encourage the rest of the family to do the same. This will reduce feelings of isolation and mean your family picks up on any symptoms faster. As mentioned above, enabling regular, remote communication more easily with a tablet could be a good idea.

Can you get COVID-19 twice?

Simply, it’s still too early to give a conclusive answer. It’s so far been proven that those who have had the virus produce antibodies that prevent the body from succumbing to the virus for a second time.

The problem is, we don’t know how long these antibodies are effective, or how quickly the virus is mutating. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, has however suggested this short-term immunity is usually long enough to last a season.

However, there have been media reports of people in both China and Japan having the condition twice. Reuters recently reported that a tour bus guide was reinfected, testing positive after having already recovered.

The number of reports to this effect are still very much within the margin of errors, and may not be representative. In truth only time will tell.

Where can I find the latest information and advice regarding COVID-19?

Although the UK Government has a relatively united position on COVID-19, there are discrepancies in the measures devolved administrations are putting in place.

You should check with the NHS and health executive for your nation of the UK. These will offer you the most relevant information:

England: Check the NHS website for guidance on symptoms, and Public Health England for latest Government measures.

Scotland: Check the NHS Scotland website for guidance on symptoms, and Public Health Scotland for latest Government measures.

Wales: Check the Public Health and NHS Wales website for guidance on symptoms and the latest Government measures.

Northern Ireland: Check the HSC website for guidance on symptoms and the latest Government measures.

To track the progress of the global pandemic, and get useful summaries of the latest research, visit the World Health Organisation website. This is the United Nations agency responsible for global public health.

Tell us your big questions

If you have a question or concern this article doesn’t answer please let us know. Follow the link and fill out the form, we’ll update this page with an answer.