Facing an unprecedented public health crisis, it is time for extra attention and care for the elderly around us, your loved ones who could be – parents, grandparents, relatives, neighbours or your workplace colleagues. Looking at all the data, public health experts have clearly flagged that older people (60 plus) and those with underlying chronic diseases (e.g. heart, diabetes, lung diseases) are most at risk. The fatality rate for 60 plus is indicated at about 6X compared to younger adult. India has about 10 crore elderly population which will rapidly rise 3X to 30 crore by 2050.
Against the COVID-19 attack, consider the vulnerability of the elderly population in India – about 60% of those in 60 plus age group and 80% of 80 plus have one or more chronic diseases, and 50% of elderly are either living alone or with spouse with limited proximal support. With lower smartphone usage and digital literacy, majority are excluded from the digital highway and there is a risk that the information, urgency and caution is not getting to them as much as others. Our health system and society is poorly geared towards support for elderly, and therefore during a crisis, the elderly risk being further isolated and neglected. When they need the support of family and community the most, they should not become the last, lost and forgotten people.
So, what can we do about it?
Here are few steps we could take:
- Get the message across to elders for taking maximum caution and the preventive guidelines: As countries look back at handling of the crisis so far, one criticism stands out – not raising the alarm early on and not acting fast enough. You can now see the shift towards treating it like a war against an invisible enemy (virus). As individuals, there is a general tendency to think it is not going to hit me or us. Convey to your elderly loved ones to take maximum care and precaution – proper hand washing for 20 seconds or use alcohol based sanitiser, restrict non-essential travel, avoid gatherings, and ensure special cleaning of surfaces within the house.
- Ensure they have adequate medicines and supplies: Keep at least 15 days medicine supply at home, to ensure chronic conditions (if any) are properly managed. Also maintain essential food and grocery stocks so that there is no need to move out. If getting things home delivered, take precaution of avoiding or limiting contact and do hand washing or use sanitiser. Often, the weakest link is the external contact or the one off visitor.
- Reach out and talk to them: With all the news on older people being at higher risk, imagine the anxiety and fear surrounding them. A phone call from you would help clarify questions they may have. With social distancing and avoiding contact being key measures to restrict virus spread, isolation and loneliness of elders can rise manifold.
- Explain the warning signs and track their status on regular basis: The advisory from health agencies point out that a combination of fever, dry cough and shortness of breath are the warning signs for seeking medical attention. Monitor yourself and your elderly loved ones, and take quick action if needed.
Make no mistake – this is a major public health crisis, the elderly are most at risk and deserve priority attention from family, communities and the government. At HelpAge India, we are reaching out to the elderly population and their families through our network of Mobile Health vans and clinics, for giving primary and preventive healthcare, and running a special awareness campaign nationwide across all locations – through Senior Citizens Associations in cities, Elder-Self-Help-Group members in rural areas and social media. Our Elder Helpline is responding to queries. We are thankful to corporates, foundations and individuals who support us.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones. May we together quickly get over this crisis.
Rohit Prasad | Chief Operating Officer