Coronavirus and Caregiving

The news about coronavirus (COVID-19) is scary. The disease is spreading across the country and it seems this spread will continue. At some point your community may become one with high risk and special precautions will be needed to stay healthy. The news coming from a senior living home in Washington State is obviously causing heightened concern for anyone caring for an older loved one. Around the world the populations most at risk are older adults and people with compromised immune systems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 spreads between people in the same ways that any virus spreads – including viruses like the common cold and flu. The biggest risk comes when a person is within six feet of an infected person. The spread involves droplets that can be inhaled or even just land on another person’s face. Or, these droplets land on a surface that is touched by another person.

The CDC has shared guidelines and most of them are easy to follow. The challenge is to find triggers to remind us to make these changes. Many of our daily actions are habit and we don’t even know we do them. Here is a case of “do what I say not what I do” as a Santa Clara California infectious disease expert shares guidelines about what people should do and not do. (See this Coronavirus expert lick her finger immediately after telling people to not touch their face.)

It is possible for people to spread the virus before they show signs of illness, however experts believe that people are most contagious when they have the most symptoms. That is, when they are the sickest. Unfortunately, the spread is rapid and serious.

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Most people who are ill with the coronavirus have recovered, but it is also true that people most at risk for serious illness and death are older people. Older people with chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease are at highest risk. So as a family caregiver, special precautions make sense. Start now, even before the illness reaches your community.

You don’t have to sit back and take your chances with the virus. Here are some of the things you can do.

  1. Encourage your parent to avoid close contact with people who are, or might be, sick. Stay home as much as possible and avoid crowds.
  2. When you are in public places try to avoid touching door handles, elevator buttons, handrails and other surfaces with your hands. Use a paper towel on door out of a public restroom, wear gloves, use your shirt or coat sleeve to open a door, push an elevator button with your knuckle, slide your forearm on the banister with your hand nearby in case you need to grab it, be creative.
  3. Keep enough medicines, medical supplies, and food on hand for a couple of weeks. You can minimize the number of trips to stores by stocking up on non-perishable items. Develop a back-up plan to ensure your parent will have the things she needs on hand. Find out if your parent’s pharmacy and grocery store delivers. Consider options to bring food and supplies to your parent to protect her from community exposure.
  4. Make sure the medicine and food supplies include things that would be useful in the event of illness, like tissues and over-the-counter medicines to treat symptoms like cough and fever.
  5. Stay home if you are not feeling well. (This is always smart even if you don’t think you have been exposed to COVID-19) Make other arrangements to provide for things your parent needs. Make a phone call or use something like FaceTime to visit until you are well. You may need to ask other family members or friends to help your parent if you become ill. It would also be useful to learn about community services that could help as well.
  6. When you do visit with family and friends don’t greet them with handshakes, kisses or hugs. For the time being settle for elbow bumps or pats on the back to greet others.
  7. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose. If you must, use something other than your hand.
  8. Wash your hands frequently. This means washing hands every time you come in from being in a public place. Good hand washing means washing with soap and water for at least twenty seconds. Or rub your hands thoroughly with hand sanitizer that has a minimum of 60 percent alcohol. This is particularly important after using the bathroom, before eating, and after any possible viral symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose.
  9. If you do sneeze, cover your mouth. Do not sneeze into your hand but rather sneeze into a tissue, or if none is available into the crook of your elbow.
  10. Clean household surfaces and objects that are frequently touched. This includes the telephone and TV remote. Also clean door knobs and handles of various sorts throughout your parent’s and your home.

If your parent lives in a senior living facility, find out what the facility’s plan is to manage an outbreak of the illness there. Keep aware and do the things you can to minimize exposure to any residents who are ill.

If you or your parent experience symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, contact your doctor. Act quickly if you see the symptoms that are serious warning signs such as difficulty breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, new signs of confusion, or a bluish tint to the lips or face. If you have concern about COVID-19 for yourself or your parent, call your healthcare provider. Do not go to the emergency room unless you are instructed to do so. If you call for emergency services be sure to tell the EMTs, before they enter your parent’s home, that you suspect COVID-19 so they can take appropriate precautions.

Health experts who understand how infectious disease works are still learning about this new virus. As they learn new information it is posted on the CDC website. Check the CDC website for up-to-date information.

[Much of this post is adapted from guidelines posted on the CDC website]

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