People Who Care for Elders with Dementia Should Get Flu Shot

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • As a caregiver to elderly loved ones, I have become vigilant about getting a flu shot. I started doing this when Mom was in an Alzheimer’s care facility and have continued doing so as my caregiving duties increased with my father (who doesn’t have dementia). Dad’s health has faltered over the past few years, thus requiring him to have home health care or be in a rehabilitation facility in order to recover from a hospitalization. I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with the health care staff in both of these instances and have greatly admired their professionalism. However, I was surprised to learn that some staff members in both organizations do not get flu shots each fall, even though they regularly work with the elderly. And then I saw a story in the Boston Globe earlier this year that reported that the Massachusetts Nurses Association sued Brigham and Women’s Hospital to try and block a new policy requiring nurses to have a flu shot in order to stay employed.

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    First of all, let’s talk about flu and the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that people who are 65 years of age and older are more susceptible to the flu. Furthermore, 90 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations each year occur in people who were 65 years of age and older.

    So it’s not surprising that older adults can benefit from getting a flu shot. In fact, people who are 65 years and older can get a higher-dose flu shot that is designed specifically for this age group. This vaccine results in a stronger immune response to three flu viruses – A/H3N2, A/H1N1, and influenza B.  The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported that a two-year randomized trial that involved approximately 32,000 participants found that the high-dose vaccine was 24.2 percent more effective than the standard-dose vaccine for people who were 65 years old and above.

    However, inoculating older adults is only one piece of the puzzle in preventing the flu. A 2011 letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to long-term care medical director pointed out that between 13-34 percent of skilled nursing homes have an influenza outbreak each year. Additionally, 33 percent of residents and 23 percent of the staff in these facilities develop an influenza-like illness. The letter pointed to research that found that vaccinating health care providers reduced the mortality of nursing home residents by 30-40 percent. Furthermore, vaccine levels of health care providers that reach 60 percent or greater in a long-term care facility resulted in a significantly lower risk of influenza outbreaks in the building.

    Therefore, I personally think it’s important for health care professionals who work with the elderly to get vaccinated. However, I also understand that these people have personal rights that need to be respected. So here’s what I’d suggest:

    • First of all, make sure that your elderly loved one gets vaccinated for the flu. That one step can make a big difference in helping protect your loved one.
    • Secondly, make sure that you get vaccinated, especially if you’re in a regular caregiving role.
    • Ask the health care organization’s administrative team about whether they have a policy in place regarding their staff and the flu shot. Hopefully, such a policy exists that encourages staff members who have regular interactions with the elderly to get vaccinated.
    • Start the conversation with health care providers who are working directly with your loved one by asking them if they’ve had their flu shot yet.  Again, you need to respect their rights if they report they haven’t had one. However, I also think it’s within your rights to talk to their supervisor and ask that your loved one – especially if he or she is in frail health – be assigned to another health care professional who has been vaccinated.

    The flu is not something to take lightly, especially if you are caring for an elderly loved one. Therefore, it’s important that you make sure that they are protected on every front from this disease.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). What you should know and do this flu season if you are 65 years and older.

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    Freyer, F. J. (2014). Brigham and Women’s nurses sue over flu shot mandate. The Boston Globe.

    Khabbaz, R. & Koh, H. (2011). Letter to long-term medical director. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Roos, R. (2014). Large trial finds high-dose flu shot beneficial for seniors. University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Published On: November 12, 2014