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Advancing age and the holidays

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

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The holidays are a season when families get together, old friends catch up with one another, and we spend time with the ones we love. Unfortunately, many of the holiday gathering traditions we cherish may be difficult for seniors dealing with physical or cognitive limitations, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, social gatherings can put older adults at risk.

Seniors challenged by arthritis, problems with mobility or other age-related physical impediments, may come to dread the holiday gatherings they once treasured. The prospect of overcoming those limitations in order to prepare a family meal or leave their home to attend holiday celebrations may be daunting and could even lead to seasonal depression.

To make it easier on loved ones with mobility issues, families may consider relocating their gathering to a location that is easily accessible for those using a walker or wheelchair, and they should keep a path open to the location where their older loved one will be sitting. That way, their older relative will not have to worry about maneuvering around tables and chairs to get to their seat.

If physical limitations are preventing that older relative from preparing the traditional family meal, or they’re not able to find the energy to put the meal together, other family members can chip in and get the meal ready for them. In cases where that relative takes pride in preparing the traditional meal, the family can let them continue to prepare one dish or a desert, and they can offer to help if needed.

Families whose older members have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia will want to plan out events well in advance and discuss them with their relative often to minimize surprises. They should follow routines as much as possible and schedule time for their family member to relax between events. Gatherings with fewer family members may be less stressful for relatives with dementia, and talking about those relatives who will be attending the gathering may help offer some context once they arrive.

Of course, the global health crisis stemming from COVID-19 has changed many things in our lives, and holiday gatherings are no exception. For nearly a year, many seniors have been limiting contact with others outside their own homes, since they are among those groups at highest risk for virus-related complications. Now they face the decision of what to do about holiday gatherings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that in-person holiday gatherings should be avoided by those most vulnerable to coronavirus complications. Before they consider abandoning their isolation and exposing themselves to the risk of contracting COVID-19, older adults should look at several factors to determine the level of risk involved.

They should examine the number of COVID-19 cases present at that time in their community. A higher number of cases also means a greater chance of catching the disease. They should also look at case rates for those communities where others attending the gathering live, to be sure that they aren’t coming from areas with high infection rates and bringing the virus with them. Many states have imposed restrictions on travelers coming from other states with high infection rates. These include limiting travel between states and 14-day quarantine periods for out-of-state guests.

Seniors should also consider the number of people attending the gathering and how long they will be staying. As the number of guests increases, so does the chance that one of those people will be an unwitting carrier for the disease. Similarly, the more time spent around someone with the coronavirus, the greater the chances are that the virus will spread to others. To limit that exposure, seniors should attend gatherings with a limited number of people and should spend as little time at the gathering as possible.

Those guests in attendance should also be following proper safety precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. They should be wearing masks that cover their mouths and noses, and they should maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another. Guests should avoid the gathering if they feel sick, especially if they are experiencing symptoms consistent with those of COVID-19 or know that they have been exposed to the virus or tested positive for it.

Guests should be washing their hand often, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Cleaning removes dirt and germs from surfaces, while disinfecting uses chemicals to kill those germs that remain after cleaning.

The location of the holiday gathering should also be considered. While outdoor gatherings offer the least amount of risk for spreading the virus, they are impractical, or even impossible, in most parts of the United States during the winter months. Indoor gatherings pose less of a risk if doors and windows are left open to allow fresh air to flow into the room and old air, where particles containing the virus may be present, to flow out.

One alternative to in-person family gatherings is to hold the function electronically, with friends and family members attending by way of a computer or mobile device. Skype, Facebook Messenger, Apple’s Face Time and other video chat apps let people to visit face to face without even leaving their homes. While this method may lack some of the warmth of in-person holiday festivities, these virtual gatherings will allow older loved ones to enjoy holiday gatherings without risking themselves to coronavirus exposure.

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Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.

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