COVID-19 and Older Adults

Verywell / Lara Antal 

Older adults and the people who care for and about them are familiar with practices that promote health and safety at home and in the community. However, during the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, these heightened precautions may feel overwhelming.

The good news is many things you are probably already doing to stay healthy will also help protect you from COVID-19, from ensuring prescriptions are filled to washing your hands.

If you are a senior or are a caregiver for an older adult, here is what you need to know about staying safe and healthy during the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Are Older Adults More at Risk for COVID-19?

The risk of any infection, as well as potential complications, is higher if you do not have a strong immune system. Having a chronic illness, taking certain medications or receiving certain medical treatments, and being at an older age are all factors that can affect your immune system.

Members of the elderly population are more likely than people in other age groups to have more than one of these risk factors, which in turn increases the risks related to COVID-19. A person who was already unwell when they were infected with the virus will be more likely to develop serious symptoms than someone who was otherwise healthy when they got sick. Possible complications include a secondary infection, sepsis, or pneumonia.

Chronic Illness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with certain health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill or develop complications if they are infected with COVID-19, compared to healthy people.

Conditions That Increase COVID-19 Severity

People may also be at increased risk if they have conditions or are being treated for conditions that affect their immune systems, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. Additionally, organ transplant recipients and people taking biologics for certain autoimmune diseases may also be more at risk, as these treatments can weaken the immune system. While people of any age can have these conditions, many of them are more prominent in older adults and the elderly.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that the chance of dying from COVID-19 increases with age. People aged 80 and over, as well as those with underlying health problems, have the highest risk of dying if they get the virus.

Nursing Homes, Assisted Living, and Hospice

Elderly people also have certain risk factors that are related to their social lives and daily routines.

  • Needing to visit healthcare providers. While many older adults are retired and do not need to go to work, they may have to go to healthcare settings for assessments or to receive treatment for chronic medical conditions. These include:
    doctor's offices
  • hospitals
  • emergency rooms
  • outpatient clinics
  • Living in community settings. Many older adults certainly do live alone and remain independent, but they may also choose to live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. While these places are expected to practice infection prevention on par with hospitals, infectious diseases such as COVID-19 tend to spread quickly wherever people live in close quarters.  
  • Living in palliative care. Those who are elderly, frail, and in the final stages of a terminal illness are especially vulnerable to infection.

What Seniors Can Do

Experiencing confusion, worry, and even anxiety about your coronavirus-related risk is normal regardless of how old you are or your usual state of health. You may be feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and even helpless.

While you cannot control or even know every factor that contributes to your risk, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you are unsure of how your age or health status influences your risk, the best thing you can do is talk to your doctor. While you may not be able to go to the office as you usually would for an appointment, you may be able to call, send a message through a secure patient portal, or even use a video chat service like Skype to have a conversation.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Woman

While you should stay up to date on the recommendations for older adults and people with specific health conditions that are identified by national and global agencies like the CDC and WHO, your own healthcare providers will be able to provide reassurance and guidance that is most relevant to you. They know your medical history and your social circumstances.

For example, your doctor can help you ensure that you have what you need to stay safe and healthy, including:

  • Prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter medications and supplements
  • A fully stocked first aid kit
  • Medical devices, equipment, and supplies (such as oxygen tanks and wound care materials)
  • Visiting nurses, home health care, or telehealth services

If you are concerned about your ability to obtain what you need to manage your health, tell your doctor. They may be able to refill a prescription early, arrange for you to have treatment at home instead of the hospital, or help you find supplies you need that may be in demand.

Your doctor's office may also reschedule or cancel appointments you had made, such as for a routine physical, test, screening, or elective procedure that can be delayed.

In the event that you are exposed to the virus or experience symptoms, your doctor will be the best resource for information about getting tested and treated where you live.

Limit Exposure

Even though it's been called "social distancing," it's creating and maintaining physical distance from other people that helps to reduce your exposure to COVID-19. Limiting how much you go out, as well as limiting people coming into your home, helps reduce your risk of coming into contact with someone who is infected. Also, If you live in a communal setting, group activities may be canceled and guests may not be able to visit.

Practicing social distancing is important because you may come into contact with someone who does not feel sick, but has been infected with the virus and can spread it to you without realizing it. Likewise, you could be infected and infect someone else.

  • Get your essentials delivered. Rather than go to the store, you may be able to get many of your essentials, such as groceries and your medications, by delivery service.
  • Make your trips out as brief as you can. If you do need to go out, avoid going to crowded areas. Try to stay at least six feet away (two arms' lengths) from other people when possible. You might usually linger for a chat with a neighbor at the store, but it's best to quickly get what you need and head home rather than dawdling.
  • "Stay in touch" through non-physical means. Social distancing means that you don't want to physically touch others, but it doesn't mean you'll be completely isolated from your loved ones. In fact, maintaining emotional contact by phone, video chat, email, or messaging apps is even more important if you are staying inside and not having visitors in your home.

Beware of Scams

Do not respond to phone calls, emails, or social media messages that ask you for personal information or money, or that offer you vaccinations, medication, or treatment for COVID-19.

Remember that scammers can make a call or message look like it's coming from someone in your community—or even a family member or friend.

If you are not sure about who is contacting you and think it might be a scam, check the Federal Trade Commission's list of COVID-19 scams.

Practice Proper Hand Hygiene

Correctly washing your hands is a habit that can save lives (yours and others)—and not just when there's a global pandemic. Proper hand hygiene doesn't just mean always washing your hands before you eat and after you use the bathroom; it also means that you wash your hands in the right way.

If you don't have clean water nearby and your hands are not visibly soiled, using hand sanitizer spray, gel, or wipes that are at least 60% alcohol can help. It's not as good as finding a sink and suds, but it's better than nothing at all.

Sanitizing products can also be useful for wiping down objects and surfaces in your car and home, as well as things that you bring along when you leave the house like your phone, wallet, and bag.

Avoid Travel (But Stay Connected)

In addition to cutting back on trips to the supermarket, you'll also want to avoid trips, vacations, and cruises. If you've already booked a trip or have an annual vacation coming up, contact your travel agent, airline, cruise line, or hotel to find out what your options are if you cancel or put off the trip.

In some cases, your flight or reservations may have already been canceled. If you have not already been contacted by the agency or company's customer service team, call them to find out your options. You may be able to be refunded or given credit for a future trip.

If you were planning to visit family, perhaps for a grandchild's graduation or a summer visit, stay in touch with them until it is safe for you to travel. While disappointment is to be expected, your physical absence doesn't mean that you can't be present—especially if you can enlist the help of your digital native kids and grandkids.

Take Care of Your Mind, Body, and Spirit

Do your best to continue doing all the things you normally do to stay healthy, like eating well, drinking water, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Beyond that, there are several relatively easy ways to practice self-care:

  • Maintain a routine. Try to maintain a routine as much as possible. If you don't usually have much of one, you might find it helpful to give yourself a bit of a schedule. It can be helpful practically to ensure that tasks get done, but it can also help mitigate anxiety you may feel about the unknowns.
  • Get outside. Unless your doctor specifically advises against it, getting outside each day—whether to work in your garden, read in the backyard, or take your dog for a walk around the block—will also help keep you in good physical and mental shape.
  • Get involved. If you are feeling isolated and alone (particularly if you don't have friends and family living close by), reach out to your local community. Churches and religious organizations, nonprofit groups, businesses, schools, and municipal departments are all putting plans in place to help people get what they need and stay safe. If you're able, there may even be ways that you can lend a hand.

Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being proactive about your mental health can help keep both your mind and body stronger. Learn about the best online therapy options available to you.

Tips for Caregivers

If you're caring for an aging loved one during the COVID-19 outbreak, you may have questions related to their unique needs. Many of the steps you're taking to protect yourself and the people in your home will also benefit an elderly family member, but there are additional precautions you may want to consider.

  • Connect with your loved one's healthcare providers. Find out what you need to know about your loved one's medical needs. Ensure that they have the prescriptions, supplies, and equipment they need and that you know how to get more. Make sure you understand how to help them manage any chronic health conditions, and know which scenarios warrant calling the doctor's office, going to the ER, or calling 911.
  • Know your local guidelines. Keep up to date with state and local guidelines related to COVID-19. If your loved one is showing signs of illness or has been exposed to someone who is sick, make sure you know when, where, and how to get care in your community.
  • Stay in touch remotely. If you have an elderly loved one who lives independently but who you regularly check up on, set up a way to stay in touch remotely. You might set up a schedule for calling them each day, set up a video camera or do daily check-ins via Skype, or arrange for them to have an emergency call button or medical alert device. If you won't be able to be in touch regularly, let their healthcare team know. You may also want to notify your loved one's neighbors, who may be willing to keep an eye on things for you.
  • If you have a loved one who has a limited ability to communicate: Make sure that you are monitoring them for signs of illness (for example, checking their temperature). An elderly loved one with speech or cognitive difficulties may not tell you that they feel sick.
  • If you have a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility: Talk to their physician about the safest option for their continued care. If they stay in their facility, it is likely that you will not be able to visit them during the outbreak. If you are concerned about the risk of exposure in a facility and would prefer to care for them in your home, understand that their medical needs may prevent this from being possible. It's also important that you are realistic about the potential safety risks of having them in your home beyond exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
  • If your loved one has a skilled or visiting nurse, personal care attendant, or another allied healthcare professional who visits them at home: Make sure you speak to the healthcare organization or agency about what steps are being taken to protect employees and patients. Work with them to put a plan in place for continued care in the event that the person who usually provides care for your loved one becomes ill.

Know Your Own Risk

If you are responsible for caring for someone else, you need to prioritize your own health and safety to ensure that you can be there for them. This encompasses everything from addressing your physical and mental wellbeing to assessing your own risk.

Taking steps to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19 helps you avoid spreading the virus to a vulnerable loved one and reduces the risk that you'll become sick yourself. These outcomes are of equal importance to ensuring that you, your family, and the people in your community are safe.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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