Special risks mean special care is needed, even as the vaccine becomes available.
Editor's note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing. For the latest numbers and updates, keep checking the CDC's website. For the most up-to-date information from Michigan Medicine, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage.
If you're an older adult, or you care about someone who is, this is a pivotal moment in the pandemic. The first COVID-19 vaccines have arrived, and older adults have top priority to get them and reduce their chance of getting very sick or dying if they catch the coronavirus.
But this hopeful moment comes at the exact same time that new, mutated forms of the virus threaten to speed up the spread, adding to already high levels of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The older a person is, the higher their risk of getting seriously ill or dying if they catch coronavirus – and having health conditions including diabetes, or even being overweight, drives that risk even higher.
So as the pandemic enters its second year, older adults may feel a mixture of hope, anxiety, fatigue, anger, fear and resolve.
"Older adults have been disproportionally affected by this pandemic, and not just in terms of their physical health," says Preeti Malani, M.D., an infectious disease and geriatrics specialist at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's academic medical center, and the director of the National Poll on Healthy Aging. "As this winter goes on, it's important to find safe ways to engage with others, get outside and move around, and take care of your medical needs."
Here are top tips to follow through this winter if you're an older adult, or if you live with or love someone who is (these tips also apply to younger people who have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19, including people with autoimmune conditions, or immune systems that have been weakened by a condition they have or treatments they receive):
1. Get the vaccine as soon as you can.
It's safe and will help keep you from getting a bad case of COVID-19 if you do get exposed. Look for updates on how and when to schedule your appointment from your state, county or city health department, and/or the health system, doctor's office or pharmacy where you get your care and medications.
Some states have started with people over 75, as well as essential workers of any age, while others have opened vaccination up to anyone over 65. People with certain health conditions will be next.
In most cases, you'll need to make an appointment, rather than just driving up to get a shot. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need to use an unfamiliar website or mobile app to do so.
If your doctor's office or hospital has a "patient portal" system, set up an account on it now so you'll get notified through it. You may even be able to pick your appointment time through it, which is what's happening for Michigan Medicine patients. A recent poll led by Malani showed that less than half of people over 50 have set up their patient portal account, and that the percentage is even lower among those who are Black or Hispanic, as well as those with lower incomes or education levels.
Don't let a little technology stand between you and the vaccine that can protect you!
Also, make sure you're scheduling the appointment through an official source – don't be taken in by scam sites that have fooled some older adults.
If you want to learn more about the vaccine before you get it, or you're concerned about something you've heard about the vaccine, check out our "Get the Facts" guide for COVID-19 vaccines.
In October, Malani and her poll team colleagues found that many older adults wanted to get more information about the COVID-19 vaccine from trusted sources, including their own doctors. But make sure the sources you're checking are good ones – hospitals, government health agencies and large, well-known nonprofit organizations focused on aging or health are the best.
2. Once you're vaccinated, don't act as if you have superpowers.
First of all, it takes up to two weeks for the first dose to teach your immune system about the coronavirus. And it takes two doses of the vaccine, several weeks apart, to get full protection. You can still get seriously ill with COVID-19 in those first weeks if you were exposed to coronavirus just before or just after getting vaccinated (but the vaccine can't give you COVID-19, because it doesn't contain a whole virus.)
Even after your second dose, you can still get infected, though you probably won't get nearly as sick as you would have. You may still be able to infect others, though researchers are working to see how likely this really is. That makes this next step important too.
3. Whether you've gotten the vaccine yet or not, keep wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and non-essential trips, and relying on takeout, curbside and delivery services.
The virus is still widespread across most of the United States, so even as more people get vaccinated and their vaccine takes effect, it could take months for the spread to slow. It's still important to do all the things we've been doing (or should have been doing) since spring to reduce the chance of getting or spreading the virus.
Most important: don't spend time indoors with other people (except the ones you live with) without a mask covering your nose and mouth the whole time. Masks are critical to slowing the spread of coronavirus, and new requirements for wearing them have just gone into effect.
Also, don't hold or attend gatherings or events with large groups of people, even with masks on. Even if your state or county hasn't set limits on gathering sizes, the same rule applies: the higher the number of people present, the higher the chance that one of them has the virus and is infectious, even if they haven't developed symptoms yet.
4. Get outside – and make a plan to meet a friend outside, with masks on and staying apart, if you're feeling well.
The weather may be cold in many areas of the country, but if you dress appropriately (including footwear with appropriate grip) you should be able to walk, hike, explore a park, have a chat or do other activities.
If the sun is out, make a special effort to get outside by yourself or with others, since sun exposure can help your mood and vitamin D levels especially in winter.
If you go outside to meet someone who doesn't live with you, keep masks on, and keep your distance physically. And don't leave home if you know you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks, or you have symptoms of any illness.
Follow the guidance from your state or county health officials about what they recommend, based on the amount of coronavirus activity in your area. For dining or drinking outside or in 'igloo' type structures, which means no masks, it's best to stick with members of your household or one other household that you agree to form a "pod" with. Learn more about having a safe COVID "pod."
5. Don't put off regular medical and dental appointments, or delay emergency care.
Health professionals have learned how to protect themselves, and you, from spreading or catching coronavirus – even during appointments where you have to take off a mask, such as getting teeth cleaned.
In fact, health care settings are probably some of the safest places you can go besides your own home. And you should not let fear of coronavirus keep you from seeking emergency care, though a recent poll of older adults suggests this is happening.
But most health providers have also figured out how to provide a wide range of care via video chat or even phone, so you never have to leave home. If you haven't set up your ability to see your providers for "telemedicine" visits, ask a friend, relative or someone at your doctor's office for help in doing so.
Don't let your health suffer, or your preventive care get delayed any further, because of worries about the virus. However, if COVID-19 activity is especially high in your area, you may find that hospitals and clinics will ask you to delay non-emergency care.
6. Move every day.
Even if you can't go outside, or don't want to brave a cold, snowy or rainy day, just walking around, climbing stairs, stretching, or tuning in to an exercise class online or on television can help you keep your mood up and your muscles working.
It may be tempting to sit on the couch or in front of the computer for hours on end, but even if you do, make sure to get up at least once an hour to move around, get a drink of water, look out a window, or even doing a "standing meeting" with coworkers, friends or relatives, where you stand or walk around while you talk or have a video chat.
7. If you have to go to work in person, or a member of your household has to go to school or work in person, be extra careful.
People who are "essential workers," no matter what their age, should get information from their employer about getting vaccinated soon if they haven't already. If you're one of them, or you live with one, it might be faster to get vaccinated through this route.
But even after someone starts the vaccination process, there's still a risk they could get sick (see above.) If you find out that someone at your workplace or school has been exposed or gotten sick, follow the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about staying home (quarantining) or staying in a room away from others (isolating).
8. Be prepared.
As the virus continues to spread, and vaccination ramps up, it's important to know what to do if someone you live with gets sick with COVID-19, using our handy guide.
You can get more tips from this advice page put together by Dr. Malani and her colleagues, and the U-M COVID caregiver toolkit.
Even if you're not comfortable getting together with people outside, or going into stores for essential trips, you should make a special effort to connect with others virtually during the winter months – especially if you live alone or are home alone most of the day. Loneliness and social isolation have doubled among older adults during the pandemic.
If you know another older person who may need more connection during this time, don't be afraid to reach out. Phone calls, texts, video chats, virtual classes and book clubs, television or movie "watch parties" and social media can all help.
You can also engage with the nearest Osher Lifelong Learning Institute near you. These are university-affiliated programs for people over 50 that offer a wide range of lectures, online learning groups and useful programs. Most are offering these programs online during the pandemic. Your local library, museum, arts organizations and senior centers may also be offering online events and training on how to use online technology.
10. Help others.
The pandemic, and its economic effects, have hit some people much harder than others.
If you have the ability to give time, money or expertise to a cause or organization you believe in, or to help neighbors with simple tasks such as snow shoveling, pet walking or outdoor chores, this is a good time to do so. You may find that helping others helps you too. We've got 26 ideas for ways to help others during this time.
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