Flu Kills: Keeping Our Elders Safe

Caregiver, patient expert

Flu isn't just an inconvenience, especially among the elderly population. For expert information on how caregivers can help their elders stay healthy and if possible avoid the flu, I reached out to  Martie Moore, R.N., MAOM, CPHQ, who is Chief Nursing Officer, Medline Industries, Inc. for some answers.

**Q. Martie, what steps should be taken short of hibernation to avoid getting the flu in the first place?  **

A. For caregivers at home, I would call for a modified hibernation strategy, meaning you need to modify your behaviors to help reduce your exposure risk.

Think about the timing of interactions:

  • Do not go shopping at high peak times where you are at higher risk to be exposed.
  • Change up your routine so that you minimize your exposure.
  • Stay out of large gatherings or crowds. The more you surround yourself with people, the greater the probability of being exposed to flu viruses.

2. One of the best actions that you can take is superior hand washing. Most people do not wash their hands long enough or in the correct manner.

  • If you are using soap and water, take the soap and lather the whole hand, work the soap around the fingers and nail beds, then rinse the hands assuring that the water runs one way only into the sink basin.
  • If you are using an alcohol base gel, be sure to use enough to cover the hand and nail bed areas.

3. If you want to help keep your immune system strong, you need to get enough sleep. It is one of the most important actions you can do.

You can also:

  • Feed your body immune boosting foods high in vitamins and minerals. Vary your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables that contain high levels of antioxidants. For example, consume foods such as berries and dark leafy vegetables that have high vitamin content. Or consider adding fish like salmon and tuna that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Another way to boast your immune system is through laughter. Your body responds to laughter by releasing a chemical that cause a positive reaction"gives your system an extra lift. I like to say that laughter is a mini facelift for the immune system.

Q. What are the first signs of this current flu that's hitting the nation so hard?

A. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the timing, severity, and length of the season usually varies from one season to another and this year, it took on an earlier than normal start. Experts say that if you have an abrupt onset of symptoms like fever, pain, nonproductive cough, body aches, fatigue and chills, it may be the flu.

Q. What are the steps that the caregiver should take in preventing the spread of the flu from an elder in the home to other people in the family, say the caregiver's children?

A. Viruses like to hitch a ride and that's why you need to be vigilant about using precautions. Here's what you can do to disrupt modes of transportation, and help reduce viruses spreading between family members.

  • Wipe down furniture and other objects that might have live virus on it to assure you interrupt the travel plans of the virus.
  • Follow through with hand washing. This is critical.
  • Screen family members who might have early symptoms.
  • Limit exposure by controlling visiting times or contact.

Q. People over 65 are at a high risk for developing complications from the flu. Since many caregivers visit their elderly loved ones daily - or even live with them - how do you advise caregivers who are exposed to the flu to minimize the risk to their elders in the home?

A. Often times we are unable to stay away from our loved ones because we need to provide care or check on their status. Caregivers need to know and protect their bodies as well.

  • If they sense they are starting to feel run down, they must take extra precautions.  If they are concerned that they might be coming down with the flu, caregivers should use an antiviral face mask such as the one by CURAD to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
  • It is easy to spread the flu through droplets in the air or on objects. Once those droplets containing live virus are touched, the flu can spread through contact. Wash down items to assure that the virus is not able to be transported through common household items like furniture.
  • Use excellent hand washing techniques at all times, and make it a daily habit.

Q. If an elderly person does contract this current flu, what are the steps that caregivers should take in preventing complications? What signs should a caregiver look for in an elderly person before taking him or her to the clinic? What signs should a caregiver look for in an elderly person before taking him or her to the emergency room?

A. It is critical that an elderly person is monitored very carefully. They are high risk, and their conditions can drastically change very suddenly.

1. You must monitor an elderly patient for any signs or symptoms that show declining health status such as:

  • Dehydration from a high fever
  • Respiratory problems including shortness of breath, coughing, and shallow breathing
  • Extreme fatigue

2. Overall, caregivers need to work closely with the provider in order to determine when the patient should be seen in a clinical setting and when it's time to seek emergent care.

Q. When my parents were in a nursing home there was a lockdown because of a flu epidemic much like the one this year. Family members couldn't visit and the facility kept residents on their own floors. Is this still the best way to prevent the spreading of flu throughout a care facility?

A. In care facilities, it is common practice to go into what is called "lockdown." It is a containment strategy to minimize exposure and cross contamination. While it is hard for the family to understand the need to do this, it definitely is a sound strategy. Families need to have plans in place ahead of time to keep connections with their loved ones. Using technology is an important tool. For example, I have seen families that have completed puzzles together utilizing two boxes of the same puzzle through Facetime.

Q. Do you think there should be an isolation floor for those in the facility who have the flu but aren't ill enough for hospitalization?

A. It is a good infection control practice, if it's logistically feasible, to cohort residents and patients with similar symptoms. However, most places do not have the space or resources to complete this type of an isolation floor. That is why it is so important to impose extra precautions in the place of care or residence, especially during flu season.

Q. What precautions are caregiving staff given to keep from bringing the flu in from the outside?

A. First and foremost is the flu vaccine. Even though this year the vaccine is not as effective as it has been in previous years, it is always best practice to protect yourself and patients from possible viral exposure. In addition, utilizing antiviral face masks and gloves are key to helping stop the spread of live virus. Throughout my career as a nurse, I always approached a patient as guilty until proven innocent when it came to viruses. I took extra precautions until the patient was deemed negative or not contagious. It all comes back to being proactive, prepared and vigilant.