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HEALTHY HABITS FOR SENIORS TO PROTECT AGAINST CORONAVIRUS

Prioritise your health, stay positive and remain connected: experts say that’s how Australia’s over-60s can weather the difficult months ahead.

Staying well is on everyone’s mind right now, but for those aged 60 and over, there are some extra precautions to take – and some understandable worries – as we deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

To try and slow the spread of this highly contagious virus, the federal government has implemented measures that include travel bans, restrictions on public gatherings, social distancing and education around hand hygiene. The hope is that these actions will help prevent a spike in cases that would overload our hospitals – a strategy experts call 'flattening the curve’.

It’s natural to feel anxious while seeing media coverage every day and to worry about your health and the health of those you love. But you do have some level of control, and you can reduce your risk of getting coronavirus (COVID-19). So, let’s take a look at the facts as well as some self-care strategies to help keep you well.

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT CORONAVIRUS AND SENIORS

COVID-19 is a new respiratory illness that can spread from infected people to those who come in close contact with them. It spreads through contaminated droplets by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects.

Signs of the disease can include fever, cough, fatigue and shortness of breath. And although most people will recover without complications, others may quickly become very unwell and require treatment in hospital. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and even death. A study of more than 72,000 cases of COVID-19 in China showed that most (81%) were mild, 14% were severe and 5% were critical.

Older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease) or compromised immune systems appear to be more vulnerable to severe illness.

WHY THE ELDERY NEED TO PLAY IT SAFE DURING THE PANDEMIC

“Most people over 60 will not have a bad infection,” says Professor Robert Booy, head of clinical research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. “But we can’t accurately predict who will get it severely.” Even healthy people can get a bad bout. But he says you’re more likely to get a serious case of COVID-19 if you’re over 80 and have other medical conditions.

At the moment, the federal government is encouraging all Australians to practise social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. “These precautions are most important for people over 60, particularly if they have a chronic disease,” a government spokesperson said. “Vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, will have to consider their own risks in decisions around caring arrangements for their grandchildren.”

Although cuddles with grandkids and school pick-ups are a special part of many grandparents’ lives, health experts recommend stepping back – just for the time being.

“What we are considering to be the biggest risk factor for the elderly are actually the young folk who are well and asymptomatic … but could carry the virus,” says Dr Billy Stoupas, a GP and spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “We are suggesting young kids that still go to school or day care should not be visiting their grandparents. Let’s start using Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime – different ways to communicate with loved ones.”

WHAT CAN SENIORS DO AT HOME DURING SELF-ISOLATION

As we have fewer social catch-ups and family gatherings and less face-to-face contact, it’s still vital to stay connected and fulfilled. Tap into hobbies, dive into a good book, get out in the garden, start a DIY project, stay physically active and make friends with technology (video-conferencing apps, games, puzzles, digital and audio books, social media and so on). Phone or text your friends and family.

“It is okay to prioritise your health for this period,” says clinical psychologist and senior lecturer Dr Michelle Lim, who’s also the scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness. “Overall, remember: this is only a short period of time. Support each other and manage your stress levels.”

HOW TO STAY POSITIVE DURING COVID-19

Australian Psychological Society president Ros Knight says feeling nervous is an understandable response to big events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. “As humans, we are hardwired to be afraid of the unknown and of something that appears random and uncontrollable,” she says. But there are things you can do if your anxiety builds up:

  • Feel reassured that medical and scientific experts are following strict procedures to contain the virus and treat those affected
  • Avoid reading social media posts that warn of an apocalypse and don’t get drawn into doomsday discussions
  • Stick to the facts and rely on scientific sources to understand what’s going on and maintain perspective.

For these reliable sources, Professor Booy says it’s best to stick to official channels of information: the World Health Organization, Australian Government Department of Health and health departments in your states and territories. You can also follow these on social media, join the official Coronavirus channel on WhatsApp, or download the government’s Coronavirus Australia app.

HOW SENIORS CAN TAKE CARE OF THEIR GENERAL HEALTH

It’s important to look after your general health and wellbeing too – particularly as we head into flu season. Keep up your daily exercise in a safe setting, drink lots of fluids and eat a well-balanced diet, Dr Stoupas recommends.

You should also keep any scheduled appointments to manage chronic conditions so you stay well, Professor Booy adds. If you develop symptoms of COVID-19 – cough, fever and shortness of breath – and you think you may have come in contact with an infected person, talk to your GP about getting tested, he advises. Remember to phone ahead and follow any instructions around testing.

“Testing is sometimes difficult to obtain because they are trying to ration it for the most likely cases,” says Professor Booy. “So be patient, be wise … and look for the classic signs.”

As for non-essential GP visits, you can always phone your GP and ask whether it can wait. Or, you can skip the waiting room and have a video consultation with a GP in the comfort of your home, through our partnership with telehealth service GP2U. Eligible HCF members also have access to a mental health professional with PSYCH2U.

As part of the changes introduced because of COVID-19 you can now have bulk-billed online GP consultations through our partner GP2U, call 1300 472 866, or you may be able to access bulk-billed online GP services with your current provider.

While our doctors, nurses, GP clinics and hospitals focus on caring for the unwell – stay healthy, look after yourself, embrace technology and try to make the most of the downtime.

Words by Karen Burge
First published in April 2020

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