As COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new coronavirus — spreads through communities, all eyes are on our most-at-risk friends, family members and neighbors. Seniors, and those with underlying medical conditions, have a higher risk of severe illness if they get the virus.
“As we age, our immune system loses its ability to fight off infection,” says Dr. Brian First, medical director of Sharp Senior Health Centers. “And those with conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, as many seniors have, are more susceptible to viral infections.”
While those at lower risk are not taking coronavirus lightly, and isolation precautions are sweeping the nation, younger generations are still worried for those most at risk. Can you visit an older family member? Should kids stay away from grandparents? How can I help those I don’t know?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), seniors and at-risk individuals need to practice the same precautionary measures as everyone else, with some extras. Yes, everyone must wash their hands. Yes, everyone must avoid crowds. But those most at risk should stay home, stock up on supplies and find new ways to stay connected with friends and family.
That, according to Dr. First, is where you come in. “Helping our at-risk community right now means two things: making sure they have what they need and making sure they don’t feel alone,” says Dr. First. “There has never been a more important time to make ourselves, and those around us, a priority.”
Helping at-risk loved onesWith the government’s directive for California residents to stay in “self-isolation,” many are confused about what that means, and how it will affect families. Dr. First offers the following recommendations on how to adhere to health rules while still assisting those at risk:
From what we know about COVID-19, so far, children have the lowest risk of illness if they get the virus. However, we also know that asymptomatic individuals could carry and pass the virus. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics finds that 13% of children with confirmed cases of COVID-19 didn’t show symptoms.
“Children are carriers of so many viral illnesses,” says Dr. First. “They could have COVID-19 without anyone knowing. While I know it can be hard for grandparents, kids should be kept away from high-risk people.”
2. Adhere to recommendations outlined by health officials
By now, everyone has heard the government directive to self-isolate. It means staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 in order to give those at risk, and those who care for the sick, a better chance to avoid and treat the virus.
For those with at-risk family members, this means one thing: keep your distance unless entirely necessary. While kids are likely to be the biggest carriers, people of any age can be infected and asymptomatic. So limit visits to essential ones, and always stay at least 6 feet away from people.
3. Double your grocery list, or be a delivery conduit
Groceries and medications are two things most needed by those confined at home. If you have an at-risk friend or family member, the best thing you can do is shop for them. Ask for a list and then add to it, as it can be difficult for anyone to know exactly what they’ll need when in isolation.
If your loved one is unwilling to have you shop for them, or lives far away, help them organize online delivery services. Most grocery stores will bring groceries straight to their doorstep, for a small fee. And many pharmacies offer the same service, though seniors may need help getting set up.
4. Become a voice for those who need it
During this time of tough headlines and empty supermarkets, confusion is everywhere. According to Dr. First, this is one of the hardest things for our senior community.
“People have a lot of questions right now, and this is especially difficult for seniors,” says Dr. First. “They don’t know what they can or cannot do, and unfortunately, they don’t know when they should or shouldn’t seek medical care.”
To combat this, Dr. First suggests that those who support senior loved ones need to step up as a voice and point of contact. Help ease fears by sharing new facts and information. If an elder family member has health concerns, step in to communicate with their caregiver as needed.
“There are phone screening processes in place right now to focus on COVID-19 concerns,” says Dr. First. “At the same time, help your at-risk family members get the care they need by calling, or helping them call, their doctor for any medical needs.”
5. Be there, even if you can’t be there
As a specialist in senior health, Dr. First knows exactly what isolation can do to the elderly community. “I know the importance of social isolation during this time,” he says. “At the same time, I have a lot of concern about what that separation from friends and family can do to someone. It can bring depression, anxiety and loneliness. We should be putting as much effort into keeping connected as we are in keeping away.”
To do this, Dr. First has clear recommendations. Make frequent phone calls, drop off deliveries if needed and get creative about connecting. Kids can’t interact in person with grandparents, but they can interact over video chat or make their loved one a homemade card. Teaching tips on online socialization or groups to join can help bridge physical distance. Even the smallest acts of checking in will mean much more during this time.
Helping at-risk community membersWhile it may be easier to focus on at-risk friends or family, you may also be concerned for neighbors or community members who don’t have family or easy access to crisis resources. Dr. First offers the following recommendations on how you can help:
Yes, you can knock on their door. As long as you keep a 6-foot distance, reaching out will mean more than avoiding isolated neighbors altogether. Offer to pick up groceries or medications, or ask for ways you can help make them more comfortable at home. Even if their answer is no, take the time to check in and offer your phone number and services.
If you’re feeling a need to help, chances are others are too. Reach out to neighbors or friends to learn about those who may need assistance. Turn to online resources, such as community bulletin boards or social groups, to see what is being organized around you.
To start, don’t panic about coronavirus. While it may be easy to join in on community anxieties, it’s counterproductive. Take the time to think about those around you. Offer kind words. Be positive. And most importantly, don’t hoard grocery store items that could go to those who need them most. Better yet, share what you buy.
Focusing on your own health means less infection in your community, and more room in medical facilities for those in need. Eat well, stay active at home and avoid outside interactions to help lower the number of coronavirus cases. And if you’re feeling sick, get help when you need it and stay away from others.
Community volunteer groups are stepping up to help, whether it’s providing food for kids out of school or beds for people experiencing homelessness. Take the time to reach out and see how you can help the following organizations and programs:
* Meals on Wheels is looking for financial donations.
* The San Diego Food Bank is accepting financial or food donations and offers regulated volunteering opportunities.
* 211 San Diego has a thorough listing of coronavirus resources for those at risk.
* The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency has a meal delivery program.
* Sharp's Senior Resource Centers offer information and support to our aging community.
“Everyone knows someone who is living alone,” says Dr. First. “Reach out, help, take care of yourself — and take care of each other.”
Looking for ways to support our caregivers? Donate to the Sharp COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. Your contribution will help supply medical teams with needed resources as they respond to this crisis in our community.