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Protecting older adults from COVID-19

Older adult couple with masks holding each other Photo: Getty Images

According to the CDC, adults age 65 to 75 are five times more likely than adults 18-29 to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and their risk of death is 90 times greater. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the United States have been in adults 65 and over.

The increased impact of COVID-19 on older adults is a trend witnessed by Dr. Christian Bergman, a specialist in geriatric medicine at VCU Health’s Center for Advanced Health Management. He and his colleagues have witnessed this trend within their own practices.

“COVID-19 is a severe illness with increased complications associated with age,” Bergman states. “Unfortunately, as older adults age, their immune system is not as effective.”

Older adults are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because many live in “close quarters” in group settings, such as nursing homes or independent senior living arrangements. Combine these more crowded living situations with a weakened immune response, and conditions are ripe for severe COVID-19, Bergman says.

If you or a loved one is age 65 or older, what can you do to keep yourself and your loved one safe throughout this pandemic? Bergman explains here, and in his podcast.

Follow standard practices

Keeping older adults safe starts with the CDC recommendations to wear a mask, maintain proper hand hygiene, stay at home when possible, avoid crowds and delay essential travel. These standard practices will help limit older adults’ exposure to the virus and help keep them from spreading it.

If travel is necessary, older adults, like everyone else, should self-quarantine at home seven to 14 days prior to leaving for their trip. The same guidelines apply when they return.

Get vaccinated

Vaccines can dramatically reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our community. “If you want to do something that is going to be very helpful, get the vaccine when it becomes available for your group,” Bergman advises. “That’s really going to help everyone in the community, including older adults.”

Don’t delay care

The CDC has reported that four out of 10 U.S. adults are avoiding medical care for fear of contracting COVID-19. In response, VCU Health is making access to care easier. 

At VCU Health, we offer both in-person and virtual visits with primary care doctors and specialists. We also offer home-based primary care and a nursing facility-based program — visiting patients where they live, in their homes, assisted living facilities or in nursing homes.

Additionally, we offer remote patient monitoring. Through this program, our VCU home-based primary care team monitors patients’ vital signs remotely to keep patients safe where they are most comfortable — in their homes.

Take care of mental health

While the physical harm of COVID-19 is very real, so is the impact on mental health.

To answer the very real feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression that nursing home residents are experiencing during the pandemic, VCU has worked very closely with the School of Medicine and its trainees. The Geriatric Student Interest Group ran a letter-writing campaign in April and May 2020 and has continued to offer a hotline to connect trainees to older adults.

“Our student leaders have organized a letter-writing campaign and have placed weekly calls to one of our independent living communities for over 200 residents. VCU is working to connect students and older adults in the community,” Bergman shares.

As we work together to get through the next several months, Bergman offers these specific steps older adults can take to improve and preserve a positive mindset:

  • First, try to moderate your news intake. The current news cycle has been stressful for many people, and that can be harmful in the midst of a pandemic.

  • Get outside as much as possible. “Complying with social distancing guidelines is important, but it’s also important to try to get fresh air and exposure to sunlight,” Bergman says.

  • Another important action is to stay connected with family and friends by phone and facetime.

  • Finally, try to do at least one new thing every week. “Maybe it’s exploring a new recipe, listening to an old song, or even journaling if you can. Trying to focus on the positive things in the midst of this pandemic and focusing on self-care is as important as ever,” Bergman concludes.

Listen to Dr. Bergman’s podcast

To hear an in-depth conversation on this topic with Dr. Bergman, please listen to this podcast on COVID-19 and older adults.

For more information on COVID-19, please visit our COVID-19 news center. For information on the vaccine, visit our COVID-19 vaccine site. Sign up for vaccine email updates.