As of this writing, the coronavirus has officially infected ~1.8 million Americans and claimed the lives of over 104,000. Though COVID-19 has touched every demographic in all 50 states, the virus has not preyed upon its victims uniformly. Americans over 65 years old have borne a disproportionate brunt of the coronavirus’ wrath.
Senior citizens represent ~15% of the nation’s population, but account for ~80% of all COVID-19 related deaths. Broken down by sub-sector, the mortality rate for patients in their 60’s is ~4%, doubles to ~8% for those between 70 and 79 and is most pronounced for octogenarians, where ~13% of those (officially) infected succumb to the disease.
During these treacherous times, we owe it to our seniors to take reasonable precautions to protect them. Below are 8 common sense ideas to help keep our most vulnerable citizens safer until the coronavirus pandemic abates. These proposals are certainly not a panacea, but they could make a difference at the margins, particularly as communities across America re-open for business and leisure.
1) Low(er) risk Americans should respect social distancing rules, wash hands frequently, and always wear a mask in public. At times, these temporary requirements can be frustrating and a bit of a nuisance. However, these sensible directives are not in place to infringe upon anyone's individual rights; they curb the spread of COVID-19 and help keep older Americans and other high(er) risk people healthy. (Unfortunately, some individuals are not adhering to the advice of medical experts. Their careless actions: partying on the beach, congregating in large groups, not wearing masks in public etc., is dangerous, selfish and leaves everybody – especially older Americans and those with pre-existing conditions - at heightened risk).
2) In cities, establish a “point person” to organize a network of younger volunteers in each apartment building to deliver food, medication, packages, and other essential items to older tenants. Cities and other areas where people live closely together are fertile ground for COVID-19 to spread. However, a silver lining is that densely populated living quarters make it relatively seamless to leverage young, healthy manpower to deliver goods to their elderly neighbors. (All volunteers should be tested and be negative for COVID-19, and positive for antibodies against the virus. It would be self-defeating if a well-intentioned volunteer were an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and unknowingly exposed an older resident. While it is not fully understood how much and for how long antibodies against the coronavirus are protective, there is a building consensus that antibodies at least confer some level of immunity for a yet to be determined time frame).
3) During the coronavirus pandemic, many seniors have made a conscious choice to remain isolated in their homes. To that end, we can make a concerted effort to interact via phone, video, and text regularly with older family members. Consistent communication can help blunt depression and anxiety, two common ailments that tend to present themselves when people are alone and indoors for prolonged periods. Indeed, a mind at ease preserves important energy to fight off infections.
4) Discuss with your elders the specifics of the coronavirus pandemic, the risks, and associated dangers. Be patient, concise, and specific. Encourage them to partake in lower risk activities: playing online games, exercising, reading, cooking, chatting with friends and family, etc. Perhaps, help them discover a new hobby they can enjoy at home. Discourage: partaking in group activities, walking busy streets, shopping in crowded stores, pushing elevator buttons, opening and closing doors, etc.
5) Sadly, some senior citizens have no immediate family to call on. Fortunately, there are organizations that reach out (now virtually) to isolated seniors with no family. Some of these groups such as seniorswithskills.org also instruct elders how to use technology to interact with friends, and for telehealth. Technology can literally be a lifeline right now. Consider volunteering at your local senior center to help the elderly leverage technology to keep them connected and stay healthy.
6) Many grocery stores and pharmacies have established “seniors only” shopping hours. This is a good idea: most seniors are likely to wear masks and practice social distancing. Unfortunately, some seniors are uninformed about these polices. Make them aware.
7) Offer to open doors and push elevator buttons for seniors to facilitate less direct contact with surfaces that could be harboring the coronavirus.
8) If you see someone elderly, take an interest from a distance. In times of stress, simple acts of kindness and generosity can make a big difference.