Caring for the vulnerable elderly

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Aside from age-related decline in immune function, elders also face social challenges, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

By Michaela Tangan
Features Writer, The Philippine STAR

Why are they at risk and what can we do to help?

In hard-hit areas such as the US and Italy, deaths due to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) in the elderly group are noticeably higher compared to younger populations. In the Philippines, 353 out of 511 fatalities are aged 60 and above, as of April 28.

Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana, director of UP-NIH’s Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, said that COVID-19 might look like a common cold for those below the age of 10; it may also be a little deadlier than the flu for those aged 10 to 60. But for those above 60 years old, the death rate is similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

“Any age group can be infected by COVID-19 because there is no immunity,” he explained. However, the highest risk for complications are those above 60 years old, and those with pre-existing illnesses like cancer, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.”

The immune system tends to get weaker with age. And with age-related decline in immune function, the body is less able to fight off infectious diseases. Health conditions that show increasing prevalence with age also cause decline in immune response.


Furthermore, Dr. Kate Tulenko, a physician and global health specialist, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) that elders also face social challenges, such as isolation and mobility issues during this outbreak.

“Because they’re isolated, they can’t get information about what to do, or not able to get the food they need if stores are out of stock and things become more difficult. In many societies, seniors are more likely to live in poverty, which makes it more difficult for them to get the things they need and to take care of themselves. Poverty presents a whole range of challenges pertaining to health,” she said.

Dr. Salvana advised at-risk groups to take extra precautions to decrease the likelihood of getting infected.

“They should avoid leaving their houses as much as possible, and they should wear a mask when they go out in public. They should wash hands frequently, and caregivers should do likewise.”

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), an inter-agency forum of United Nations (UN) and non-UN humanitarian partners, advised families and caregivers of elderlies to provide emotional support and adequate medical needs and supplies. In a safe environment, they should be given time to do simple exercises or activities to improve mobility and decrease boredom.

They should also have easy access to simple facts and updates about the COVID-19 pandemic. Families and caregivers must patiently, concisely and respectfully share clear information on how to avoid getting infected.

If elders get infected by COVID-19, Dr. Salvana advised caregivers to immediately contact health-care professionals by phone.

“If the patient is short of breath, he/she needs to be taken to the hospital emergency room immediately. Caretakers should wear appropriate personal protective equipment as much as possible so that they do not get infected. If the patient elects to stay at home and has relatively mild disease, he/she should be isolated in a single room. If this is not possible, the local government unit may be able to provide space in a community quarantine facility. The important thing is to recognize that the patient is at higher risk and always be guided by competent medical advice,” he said.