Coronavirus and Older Americans: What Families Should Discuss

multigenerational African American family

In the face of the outbreak, AARP is providing information and resources to help older people and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus and prevent it spreading to others. You can find AARP's coronavirus resources at www.aarp.org/coronavirus.

Since first emerging in 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread across the world to threaten adults of all ages, with older people particularly at risk. Data from China, where the disease first spread, shows that 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 U.S. communities, has left many older Americans and others both nervous and looking for answers.

While we have no control over certain risk factors such as our age, and while questions remain unanswered concerning COVID-19, there is much we can do to prepare and protect ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidance for “People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19” on how they can prepare for the event that coronavirus infections are reported in their community. Reviewing that information can be extremely helpful and beneficial to everyone. Meanwhile, here is a further look at important coronavirus-related information concerning what you should consider and discuss—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. For this reason, current CDC guidance is for people age 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.

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

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

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. The CDC says to make sure your home and workplaces are clean and wiped with disinfectant regularly, with particular attention to electronics—now ubiquitous with people of all ages.

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.

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.

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 neighborhood has a website or social media page, consider joining it to stay connected to neighbors, information, and resources. Anyone with symptoms should follow the recommendations from the CDC. 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 health care providers to safety check on them and provide help if they do, in fact, develop symptoms or become sick.

Keep Abreast of Key, Up-to-Date Information

The situation with COVID-19 is rapidly changing. That means everyone should find and regularly check a trusted information source. In addition to the previously mentioned guidance for “People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19,” the CDC’s website itself is a good resource, with such information as guidance on how to get your household ready for COVID-19. Another good information source is your state public health department website.

AARP has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than sixty years. In the face of this outbreak, AARP is providing information and resources to help older people and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus and prevent it spreading to others. In the 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, and that includes engaging in moderate exercise, keeping a healthy diet, and getting regular sleep.

Household clusters of COVID-19 infections suggest 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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