Because older people are at higher risk of developing severe illness from the new coronavirus, nursing homes and hospitals are declining visitors, while officials, such as Quebec Premier François Legault, are asking those over age 70 to stay home.
How can you assist the elderly, while protecting them? Is it safe for older adults to visit the grocery store? Here’s a guide:
Is it okay to visit others at home?
Social distancing doesn’t mean cutting off contact. We need to protect those who are most vulnerable, but we also have to consider their need for social interaction and psychological well-being, says Isaac Bogoch, infectious-disease specialist at the University of Toronto and the University Health Network.
“Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t ignore that,” Dr. Bogoch says.
There’s one big caveat: If you’re sick, stay home and away from others.
If you’re well and receiving visitors, greet them from a distance of one metre, such as with a wave, nod or bow, the World Health Organization recommends. It also advises asking visitors to wash their hands, and regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in the home that are frequently touched.
Appoint a designated visitor
To reduce face-to-face interactions, families can appoint one person to visit an older relative, suggests Kenneth Rockwood, an internist and geriatrician at the Halifax Infirmary. That person should be someone who diligently practices hand hygiene, avoids touching his or her face, and covers their nose and mouth with an elbow or tissues when coughing or sneezing. Ideally, he or she is also not coming in physical contact with many others, Dr. Rockwood says. And if they get sick, they should stay home.
What if visits aren’t allowed?
Hospitals and nursing homes are now limiting or restricting visitors. Quebec, for instance, is prohibiting all non-essential visits to hospitals, long-term-care facilities and private seniors’ homes. (Visits are allowed for loved ones who are dying, the province says on its website, and it’s possible to drop off food or other essential items, as long as you avoid contact with anyone on-site and depart immediately after leaving the delivery with reception staff.) Ontario is also recommending that only visitors of residents who are very ill or requiring end-of-life care be allowed at licenced retirement homes.
If you can’t visit, get creative, Dr. Bogoch says. Connect via digital devices or phone calls. On social media, people are sharing images of family members communicating with each other from either side of a window.
Is it safe to babysit grandchildren?
As schools and daycares are closed, parents may be looking to grandparents for child care. Consider whether grandparents are at risk, says Dr. Rockwood, who is also a professor of geriatric medicine at Dalhousie University. What is the child’s network of playmates like? Is one grandparent a caregiver to his or her partner? If so, what would happen if either becomes ill? These are questions you should keep in mind, he says.
Many older adults feel a very strong sense of wanting to help, Dr. Rockwood says; it may be up to you to “save people from themselves.”
Health experts also recommend keeping children away if they are sick, even if they show the mildest signs of a cold.
Can older adults leave home to run errands?
Quebec asks that people ages 70 and older try to stay home, unless it’s a necessity or an exception, such as an important medical appointment. The province says they can also take walks, but must follow advice, such as to wash their hands and avoid large groups.
Should residents be taken out of nursing homes where there are cases of COVID-19?
If there’s an outbreak of the new coronavirus at a nursing home, the entire institution is put under quarantine, Dr. Rockwood says, so removing residents would not be possible.
Moreover, from a public-health perspective, he says, older adults who are at higher risk of catching COVID-19 could spread the disease if they are moved to another place.
What can I do to support loved ones with dementia?
While technologies, such as FaceTime and WhatsApp, are great for keeping in touch virtually, some people with dementia may not be able to use them, Dr. Rockwood says.
However, residents in long-term care often have certain members of their care team, such as a nurse or nurse’s aid, with whom they are close, he says. He suggests passing on messages through these connections, so residents still know you care about them, even if you can’t see them. This also presents an opportunity to recognize and appreciate the staff, he says.
Discuss end-of-life matters
For individuals with severe dementia, consider what can be done for them if they catch COVID-19, Dr. Rockwood advises.
It can be difficult to think about the possibility of death. However, he says “it may well be that the family will be called upon to accept with equanimity something that is tragic and unfair, but [infection] might not be the worst possible [way to die].”
It’s important to reflect on these things now, rather than be forced to respond when you’re caught off-guard, he says. Discuss these matters with your family, otherwise, those who are most outspoken and reactive may be the ones who take charge.
Should I avoid certain medications?
There are questions as to whether certain drugs, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, can make COVID-19 worse, Dr. Rockwood says. And experts don’t yet have the answers.
“At the moment, we really don’t know, [but] don’t act on it without talking to your physician," he says, noting your doctor can help you understand the risks of stopping medication.
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