Senior Health: Keeping Elderly Populations Safe From Viruses Demands Vigilance

Like the very young, senior populations are uniquely vulnerable to illness during cold and flu season. Many are immunocompromised and, for those living in nursing homes or who are in and out of medical settings, exposures can be high. Despite their increased risk of infection, though, proper vigilance can reduce the likelihood of illness. If you’re a caretaker for an older adult, these 5 measures can keep them safe this winter, preventing otherwise minor illnesses from becoming life-threatening.

Nutrition Matters

It may seem fundamental, but one of the best ways to protect against illness is by building up the body through good nutrition. Check with the seniors in your life and make sure they’re getting enough calories, particularly protein and a balance of vitamins. Proper nutrition ensures the body can fight infection. If they seem to be struggling to eat enough, adding dietary supplements or changing the texture of the food may help. 

Emphasize Hydration

Like nutrition, hydration plays a key role in overall health and many older adults are already mildly dehydrated, even when they’re not ill. Pair that with a condition like norovirus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. During the winter, make sure your loved ones are getting enough fluids and, if they begin suffering GI issues, contact their doctor immediately, as they may require IV fluids.

Don’t Be A Vector

If you’re responsible for caring for an older adult in your life and you fall ill this winter, you have to face a tough choice. Do you tend to them or do your stay home? Unless it’s an emergency, it’s always better to stay home and treat your illness and find someone to take your place. Furthermore, if you’re not a critical caretaker, you should avoid visiting your elderly relatives if you’re sick. 

Alternatively, if you’re not a direct caretaker but you’re responsible for someone in a nursing home, ask management about their policies. The Nursing Home Law Center recommends that all nursing facilities offer sufficient paid sick time so that employees are able to stay home if they’re ill. The facility should also be screening staff and visitors for illness as that kind of close contact can quickly spread colds, flus, and other viruses through the entire facility.

Wash And Wash Again

We tend to be vigilant about making sure young children wash their hands, but as adults we tend to relax our focus on hand hygiene. Consider this your reminder not to relent. Wash your hands throughout the day, especially when using the bathroom, cooking, or if you’ve been around the sick. You don’t need to use antibacterial soap; scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time is enough to kill those germs.

Learn The Signs

Do you know what pneumonia looks like? What’s the difference between a cold and the flu and a bacterial infection? While most of us assume we can identify common illnesses, they can be subtle, and some present differently in older adults. In particular, pneumonia can look like the common cold, but even if their symptoms seem mild, the elderly can easily develop complications from pneumonia. If you’re seeing cold symptoms lasting beyond a week or if they develop a fever, it’s time to head to the doctor.

Older adults often lack strong natural defenses against illness, and they may lack much control over who takes care of them and who they see on any given day. That’s why your role as a caregiver is so important. Your task is to protect them from infection, even if that means stepping back from their care yourself. When even a minor illness can lead to serious and lasting physical decline, an ounce of prevention can be a life and death matter.

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