How to protect seniors from COVID-19

While there are many unknowns amid the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is certain: the most vulnerable people are seniors. Through the first months of the outbreak (as of March 26), the fatality rate among those 80 and older is roughly 20 times higher than for people 50 and under. People 60 and older are more likely to have more severe reactions, regardless of their general health. Of course, older people with underlying medical conditions are at a particularly high risk.

Families and seniors need to take every precaution to stave off the virus. Several best practices have been recommended by the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada, geriatricians, infectious diseases specialists and the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gently, persistently emphasize the seriousness of the virus

A US poll in early March shows that seniors are the least worried and also least informed about the virus. Many older boomers strongly believe in self-reliance and many persist in not taking it "so seriously." One 64 year old is quoted by his millennial granddaughter as saying: "You can’t live life being afraid of everything. Anything could kill you."  This might be typical attitude. So how do people get around that? We take a fuller look at how to talk to stubborn seniors aboout Coronavirus.

Be aware for those most at risk

Among seniors, those with underlying medical conditions are most at risk. “These conditions can limit underlying reserve and lead to worse outcomes when older people become severely ill, which taxes all organ systems,” says Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer, an infectious diseases specialist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (quoted in The New York Times). For example, seniors with diabetes or a heart condition need to be extra vigilant. “Diabetes can make it harder to fight infection,” she says, “and underlying heart or lung disease may make it more difficult for those organs to keep up with demands created by a serious Covid-19 infection.”

If you’re aware that your loved one’s condition(s) put(s) them at a higher risk, take extra precautions to protect them against the virus. Be sure that they’re also aware of the danger.  

There may also be other seniors you know with an elevated risk, who have no one to look out for them.  If you have time and energy, this is an opportunity to reach out to isolated people and help them in any way you can.

Run errands for them 

This is increasingly becoming a civic duty. Consider this statement from Ontario Premiere Doug Ford, "We take seriously the advice of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, and we're working to put an iron ring of protection around our seniors from COVID-19. Asking seniors to stay at home will not be easy as it will mean inconvenience, isolation and significant change in routine. That's why we are encouraging everyone to reach out and support them, whether it's delivering their prescriptions or picking up the phone and giving them a call. It will all make a positive difference to our most vulnerable citizens."

The government of Ontario is investing $10 million to help community organizations with the coordination of subsidized deliveries of meals, medicines and other necessities to seniors. The government is also working with grocers and pharmacists to prioritize seniors' delivery orders and establish senior-only shopping hours.

In the meantime, ordinary citizens stepping up can help alleviate the need for seniors to put themselves at risk. This is helpful for seniors and protects them from potential exposure to the virus, which is a risk for them whenever they go out. The virus can live on some surfaces for up to two days, and also spreads through aerosols. During any outing, people risk contact with the virus. To exhibit utmost vigilance, wipe down purchases with hand sanitizer.

Make sure they are well stocked with hand sanitizer and hand soap. We understand that hand sanitizer is in short supply, but most people have a good supply of soap. Remind them that they should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds (sing “Happy Birthday”).

Regularly remind them of all the important measures of personal safety

These include:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from everyone.
  • Avoid touching your face. This is a challenge for everyone.  If people can't be mindful of this all the time, focus on it most if you are leaving the house. 
  • Don’t share personal items with anyone else. This includes things like drinking glasses, utensils, toothbrushes, and lip balm.
  • Regularly wipe down heavily contacted surfaces including doorknobs, keyboards, and stair rails in the home, using sanitizer, household cleaners, or a diluted bleach solution.
  • Wash their hands frequently and thoroughly. If they have been out and have touched surfaces like elevator or ATM buttons, gas pump handles, grocery carts, etc., it’s importance to sanitize after every contact.

Review prevention measures from Health Canada for yourself.

Speak to them regularly for updates

Ask specific questions about how they are feeling, while keeping mindful of avoiding intrusiveness or overzealousness. If they report any respiratory issues or other symptoms are consistent with those of COVID-19, call a doctor.

If anyone tests positive for the virus, alert everyone you have had contact with in the previous fourteen days.

Helping senior loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia during the COVID-19 ourbreak

Caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia face singular difficulty in this crisis. The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada offers the following tips for family, friends and others caregiving for seniors with dementia:

  • Expand your circle of care. Ask others if they can supplement care in case you get sick and can’t continue or need quarantine.
  • Document instructions for care. Provide detailed information for the person coming in to provide care. This includes documenting medicines and their dosages as well as health care contacts
  • Ensure the person has adequate supplies.  
  • Leverage technology to help bridge the social distance
  • Keep a routine (as well as you can under the circumstances).
  • Have a plan for visitors. For example, make sure hand sanitizer available is available for any visitors.
  • Take care of yourself, too.

Their complete list is available from  


Sources and further reading

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Prevention and risks. Health Canada.


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