While anyone can come down with the flu, one demographic is particularly susceptible to this respiratory illness and its potentially life-threatening complications: people aged 65 and over. In fact, according to research published in PLOS One, seniors represented a staggering 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations and 90 percent of all seasonal flu-related deaths in recent years. However, there are things caregivers can do to keep aging loved ones safe—starting with these flu prevention tips for older adults.
1. Don’t skip out on the flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine is the single best way to prevent the flu in seniors: Research reveals that flu-related health issues, including everything from hospitalizations (and length of stay) to the number of deaths, are reduced by the vaccination. If you haven’t yet gotten a flu shot for your aging loved one, you’re not too late: While earlier is better because it protects for longer, the flu vaccine continues to be a key preventative measure as long as the flu is circulating.
(Learn more about the importance of vaccinations and immunizations for seniors here.)
2. Focus on nutrition.
While seniors are more prone to getting the flu due to the natural decline of immunity that occurs with age, nutrition can give the immune system a beneficial boost. Whole foods, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains can help fortify the immune system of older adults. His/her physician may also recommend supplementing with vitamins and minerals in order to prevent deficiency.
3. Teach, enforce and practice good hygiene habits.
While getting seniors to wash their hands can be a chore, it’s a worthwhile endeavor when you factor in the degree to which doing so can stop the flu from spreading. Insists the CDC, “Handwashing is a win for everyone, except the germs.” How much handwashing is enough? Experts recommend two full rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song. In addition to routine handwashing, hand sanitizers add another element of protection—especially for seniors who may be managing mobility or dexterity challenges.
In addition to clean hands, a clean environment is also critical. Make sure counters, handles, and light switches are regularly wiped down to keep germs at bay. Microwave sponges or soak them in bleach to sanitize them, as well. (You can also germ-proof sponges by running them through the dishwasher.) Also, remote controls and cell phones are other common culprits when it comes to germs, so make sure to wipe these clean, too.
4. Keep them out of circulation.
You may not be able to prevent flu germs from circulating, but you can minimize the degree to which seniors in your care are exposed to them. Make sure to keep aging loved ones away from people with the flu. Because flu germs can spread from as far as six feet away, crowded places and unnecessary travel should also be limited.
However, this doesn’t mean that seniors should become shut-ins during flu season. In fact, getting them out, about and moving is another flu prevention strategy. Proposes Harvard Health, “Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.”
5. Encourage adequate hydration.
Hydration is important for many reasons for seniors, including that the body holds less water as it ages, which means that dehydration can come on more quickly. Factor in that older adults may also have reduced perceptions of thirst, and seniors are often in peril before they even notice they’re thirsty.
Drinking plenty of liquids can also keep the nose lining moist—another way to prevent the flu. “The first line of defense is the mucous membrane in the nose. This acts like a sticky flypaper to trap things like dust, dirt, and bacteria and prevent them from getting to the lungs. If you are dehydrated, the mucous membrane will dry out. When this happens, it is half as effective,” insists researcher Dr. David Lewis.
(Learn more about hydration and dehydration for seniors here.)
Despite your best efforts, a senior in your care may still come down with the flu. If this happens, prompt treatment can lead to faster healing while reducing the likelihood of complications. Call your aging loved one’s doctor if he/she is exposed to the flu and/or starts exhibiting symptoms.
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