If there is anything that aging teaches us, it is to expect things never to stay the same. Yet, since the outbreak of COVID-19, change has been so swift that it’s been hard to keep up. One constant, however, has been that coronavirus poses the greatest risk to seniors.
It’s not even been a year since the first reported cases in Washington State, which decimated an assisted living community. From then on, scientists have worked rapidly to understand the symptoms, the impact, and the evolving treatments for this disease.
The positive news of late is that a vaccine will soon be available to the public. But life as we knew it, particularly for elders, will never go back to what it was. Older people will need to adjust to a post-pandemic world. Keeping pace with the new normal and understanding how and why certain changes are essential will serve seniors well and help them stay healthy.
Symptoms of COVID-19 in elders
There is still significant confusion about COVID-19 in the public view, including questions of its infectiousness and how best to remain protected. Some of this is due to misinformation, such as the idea that COVID-19 only impacts the elderly. Another point of confusion is that so many patients remain asymptomatic, while those who fall dangerously ill and die do so in the seclusion of a hospital ICU.
Furthermore, the science community is still out on why people have such a range of symptoms. Per Health Harvard, the gambit of severity is perplexing, but new research suggests that it might have something to do with an inadequate interferon response. For those patients, “their antibodies mistakenly attack and neutralize their interferons. And there are others who have a genetic mutation that prevents their body from producing enough of a certain type of interferon.”
But why are seniors a specific target of the disease? It could have something to do with a weaker immune system. Science has discovered that as we age, our immune system does begin to lose some of its strength. Per Compass by WebMD, the data about aging and immunity show that our T-cells tend to slow down in response to invaders, so we get sick more often and take longer to recover.
For adults, how we understand the symptoms of COVID-19 keeps evolving, but the most common we know are: fever, body ache, dry cough, fatigue, chills, headache, sore throat, loss of smell. If the illness escalates, it can lead to underlying conditions such as pneumonia (resulting in even higher fever), more severe cough, and a frightening shortness of breath.
With additional cases and more medical insights, the target for diagnosis of COVID-19 is always moving. Recently, for example, doctors have noted that seniors can present with delirium as a first indication. Per MedPage Today, 28% of COVID-19 patients 65 and older presented to the ED with delirium, and it was the primary symptom for 16% of patients. An alarming 37% of patients with delirium did not present with typical COVID-19.
A New Life for Seniors
Once the vaccine is widely circulated, it will still be a while before we can return to something in the ballpark of life as it used to be. For seniors, many choices and expectations will be altered permanently. A list of the most immediate changes older people can expect are featured here, but as with everything, it is always evolving!
“Mask up” often: The number-one thing that has been clear during this pandemic is that we all expel and inhale germs all the time, which poses a risk when someone is sick. Even once we’ve reached public immunity for COVID-19, seniors may need to remain prudent and mask up in public settings. For activities such as shopping and travel, keeping a mask on could be considered standard practice.
Travel changes: Per RISMedia, travel for seniors could be different as well. Expect more elders to travel by car for trips of 800 miles or less, rather than navigating a crowded and busy airport. And foreign excursions may be curtailed in exchange for closer in-country destinations. For those who do fly and can afford it, seniors might spend their dollars flying business class or purchase a ticket for a middle seat to create some distance on a plane.
Disinfecting: If you’ve ever felt like a lone germaphobe in a world where others just don’t care, now is your time to shine! You’ll see how every business and service everywhere continues to pitch cleanliness. The disinfecting of surfaces and air will be essential for any business that serves the public. Anticipate a response to the desire for greater physical distance to impact the design of shared spaces and architecture, too.
Vaccines required: You know that if you travel abroad or work in medical fields that vaccines are often required. As we move into the vaccine phase for COVID-19, expect that certain employers will require a vaccine for their employees, and specific businesses such as those serving travelers may expect customers to get vaccinated prior to getting aboard planes and cruise ships.
Technology connect: Don’t hang up those technology tools you learned to use during the pandemic! Teleconferencing with physicians will continue as a prime method to keep communication open between patient and doctor. Expect less time in travel, less exposure in medical settings, and more quality face-to-face with your doctor—often virtually—in the future.
Seniors have gotten used to the delivery of groceries and other services via the click of a button on their phone, too, and these services will continue to be in demand. And since staying in touch needn’t wait anymore until gathering in person, elders will also use their phones or tablets more often to connect with family and friends all over the world.
Age in-place: Occupancy in senior living communities has taken a hit during the pandemic. It’s a trend that persists as more families elect to age in place longer than they might have just a few years ago.
The article, How COVID-19 Will Shape the Future of Senior Living. New Models of Care, More Aging In Place, over at Barrons, provides an insightful breakdown of the impact on senior living facilities. “Before the crisis, roughly a fifth of senior-living communities had occupancy rates of below 80%—a level that could make it harder for them to weather the slowdown, especially as costs increase and cash flow takes a hit.”
While assisted living and memory care will recover, the economy and lowered confidence in the senior living industry will have many elders electing to age in place instead. Demand for in-home services including caregivers, companions, and private duty nursing offered by providers such as Home Health Companions will continue to increase.
Accepting and adapting for your health
In the future, armed with this newfound information gained from the pandemic, seniors will need to be more cautious about infections and veer away from large gatherings. However, thanks to technology and a myriad of options available today, the later years need don’t have to remain uninteresting or isolated!
Seniors know a thing or two about adapting because they’ve lived long enough to know that change is a part of life. Of course, nothing is meant to stay the same, but how we come to deal with the differences is what really matters.