COVID-19 is a new disease that is especially unfavorable to older adults who have the greatest risk of being severely ill when they get infected. The older the person is, the greater the risk. In the US, 8 out of 10 deaths due to COVID-19, are people who are 65 years old and above. Older persons are much more likely to become very sick because their immune systems are weaker and because they usually have other chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.
The challenge of caring for older patients is that they may not be fully aware of being sick with COVID-19. The reason is that they might also be suffering from other diseases. For some, especially for those 80 years old and above, the signs and symptoms of an infection may be different from that of a younger person. An infection in this population group can present only as having a lower than normal body temperature and possibly confusion.
For those with dementia, caregiving becomes even more challenging. The patient may not be able to communicate properly. Most likely, they also have memory problems, that’s why there is also a need to remind the patient constantly to perform handwashing more frequently.
The above information is a serious call for caregivers to be more particular when caring for older patients. Aside from strictly practicing infection control protocols, caregivers must watch out for possible signs and symptoms of COVID-19 in these patients not only because they are highly vulnerable but also because their condition can turn for the worse in just a matter of hours. This is your special role as you spend the most time with the patient. Spotting signs of infection early on can make a big difference in their recovery because they can receive medical attention immediately.
1. Be alert of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 which include:
a. Fever or chills
c. Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
d. Muscle or body pains
f. New loss of taste or smell
g. Sore throat
h. Stuffy or runny nose
i. Stomach upset and diarrhea
j. Getting tired easily
Take note that in older patients, a temperature reading higher than 100°F (37.8°C), several readings above 99°F (37.2°C), or a 2°F (1.1°C) rise above their usual temperature may be a sign of infection. Likewise, an abnormally low temperature is also a cause for concern.
If you note any of the above signs, report to the nurse or your agency immediately. Also, inform your supervisor of new complaints, such as feeling not their usual, loss of appetite, or stomach upset. For older patients, the common signs and symptoms typically present in younger people may not apply.
2. Be aware of danger signs.
Danger signs include trouble breathing, chest pain or pressure that is not going away, new or worsening confusion, drowsiness, or bluish lips or face. These are emergency cases and you need to respond as quickly as possible. In this situation, every second counts.
3. Isolate or remove the sick patient from being in the same room as other people.
They must remain in their room alone from this time onward. This step is to prevent the further spread of the virus. When you isolate them, you are expected to use proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as per agency protocol for suspected cases. Be extra alert if the patient is prone to ‘wandering’, a common behavior of people with dementia where they start walking with purpose and then eventually become disoriented and lost.
4. Know and provide for the patient’s needs in advance.
This is helpful to prevent them from leaving their rooms to ask for supplies. Put a call bell nearby and instruct the patient to use it if they need any assistance.
5. Protect yourself, too.
If you note possible signs and symptoms of COVID-19 in a patient, consider yourself possibly exposed. Wash your hands thoroughly after seeing the patient and report your findings straightaway. Follow your agency procedures for potentially exposed workers.
6. Do not allow visitors to personally interact with the patient.
If the patient has a scheduled visit from their family, discourage them from seeing their sick loved one. You may need to coordinate with your supervisor for this task to help explain why they may not see the patient.
7. Help the patient connect with their loved ones through phone calls and video chats.
A sick older patient who is isolated will likely be lonely and scared. Seeing and hearing their loved ones through a video call can improve their mood and can help them recover faster.
Caring for older adults during this pandemic is a special challenge for caregivers. More than ever, the practice of thorough handwashing and infection control procedures must be followed. Be proud of yourself for this great sacrifice of being in the front line as the world tries its best to win this battle against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
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