Feature
Professor of Public Health and Ageing at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer, speaks at a Digital Town Hall for senior citizens.
Photo: Rudranath Fraser

Story Highlights

  • Elderly persons are being encouraged to protect and maintain their health, as the country continues to fight the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
  • An article published by the World Health Organization (WHO) says that although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risks of developing severe illnesses if they contract the disease, due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.
  • Professor of Public Health and Ageing, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Dr. Denise Eldemire-Shearer, tells JIS News that the virus can be as detrimental to mental wellbeing as it is to physical health, and that the elderly are among the most vulnerable groups to the effects of the virus.

Elderly persons are being encouraged to protect and maintain their health, as the country continues to fight the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

An article published by the World Health Organization (WHO) says that although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risks of developing severe illnesses if they contract the disease, due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.

Professor of Public Health and Ageing, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Dr. Denise Eldemire-Shearer, tells JIS News that the virus can be as detrimental to mental wellbeing as it is to physical health, and that the elderly are among the most vulnerable groups to the effects of the virus.

“Fear of the unknown is a terrible thing and of course, we are highlighting that if seniors get it, they are likely to have a more severe reaction than younger persons. So, the number one thing is to do all that you can to prevent getting it,” she notes.

Dr. Eldemire-Shearer, who is also patron of the National Council for Senior Citizens (NCSC), says the Council is providing tips to its members on measures they can employ for their psychosocial wellbeing throughout this difficult period.

She notes that one of the first things these persons can do is to heed the practical advice of government officials on preventive measures thy can employ to protect their physical health.

“Seniors can take measures to maintain their psychosocial well-being, starting with measures to actually prevent getting the virus,” she says.

Among the recommendations Dr. Eldemire-Shearer outlines is for seniors to obey the Government Order to stay at home and maintain social distancing.

The Order requires the elderly 70 years and older to remain at home, except to access food, medication, water, and other life essentials, and for persons over 65 years to wear a face mask at all times.

“What this means is that seniors must avoid crowds. It is about keeping away from other people, including family members who may have been exposed to the virus. The first step is to see it as a protective mechanism rather than a punishment,” the Professor argues.

She is encouraging seniors to practise the health safety measures published by the Ministry of Health and Wellness to reduce transmission of the virus: frequent washing and sanitising of hands and surfaces, coughing and sneezing into the elbow or tissue and proper disposal of used tissues.

Another precaution, she recommends, is for seniors to closely monitor existing chronic underlying illnesses they have and ensure they have adequate medication to continue to treat these conditions while at home.

“Seniors are at a real risk to the effects of COVID-19 with all the illnesses they tend to have, such as hypertension, diabetes and arthritis. They have to make sure, within all of the restrictions, that they have their medication and they are not allowing chronic diseases that they may have to get out of control,” the Professor says.

“If you think that you need medical care, call your health centre, call your doctor. Don’t say the health services are burdened with COVID-19 cases, so I will wait to see what happens. Don’t wait and then you end up sick in the hospital,” she adds.

Dr. Eldemire-Shearer notes that a primary concern expressed by seniors is the fear of being isolated and losing their independence.

“Some of our seniors have been very upset at being told that they have to stay at home. Seniors are extremely independent and they don’t like to ask for help,” she says.

To prevent social isolation, she recommends that seniors and their family members utilise communication technology to stay connected, while adhering to the Government’s social distancing protocols.

Noting that between 15 and 18 per cent of seniors live alone, the Professor says family members can make the effort to give them a call each day. “There are some that are really going to be lonely, especially among the older age group,” she adds.

The Professor also points out that persons in the 80 to 85 age group are still quite active.

“These persons are not necessarily with a care giver and do not have anyone at home with them. Ensure that you call them to let them know ‘I am thinking about you’, so that they don’t feel disconnected from the world. That is going to tell the senior that you are interested in their welfare, as well as allow you to be able to hear how they sound,” she explains.

Professor Eldemire-Shearer says this communication can enable loved ones to determine if their elderly family members are becoming unwell.

“Sometimes the seniors themselves don’t know when they are becoming unwell, but the younger persons can say grandma or grandpa doesn’t sound quite right. So, it will give you the cue to go and check on them. It is about finding out what they like and if they have the necessary resources with them while they pass the time at home,” Dr. Eldemire-Shearer explains.

Of note, she says, are families with loved ones suffering from dementia. This is a collective term used to describe various symptoms of cognitive decline, such as forgetfulness. It is a symptom of several underlying diseases and brain disorders.

“Families with loved ones suffering from this ailment are struggling because these seniors do not understand what is happening (because of memory loss). They may need a little more sedation to get them through this period. Remind them this is only for a time. Whenever we get pass it, life can go back to normal,” she tells JIS News.

She says the NCSC is also supporting its members across the island and works closely with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, as well as other national and voluntary groups, to meet the needs of seniors.

“There are organisers in every parish to get out the information. They are doing a lot of workshops and other various methods of distance communication to get the information to seniors on the NCSC programmes,” Professor Eldemire-Shearer says.

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