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Coping with coronavirus: practical guidance for older people

Older people are at greater risk of serious health problems from coronavirus. Here’s what you can do to stay safe and avoid feeling isolated if you have to stay at home.

Coping with coronavirus: practical guidance for older people

Coronavirus and the risk to older people

Last updated: 20 April 2020

The current outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) represents a significant risk to public health across the UK. Older people and those with underlying health conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes) are at greater risk of developing serious illness as a result of infection.

Official guidance on how to minimise your risk of getting coronavirus, and what to do if you develop symptoms, is the same for everyone, regardless of age. But there are some specific considerations to help older people protect themselves.


What do we mean by ‘older people’?

According to the NHS, anyone over the age of 65 can be considered an older person. However, official data based on the original outbreak in China suggests that the risk of serious complications from COVID-19 increases for anyone aged over 50; and this risk increases significantly with age. For example, the fatality rate in China for those contracting the virus was around 3.5% for people in their 60s, 8% for those in their 70s, and almost 15% for anyone over the age of 80.

However, the level of risk is also influenced by underlying health conditions, so not all older people will be as vulnerable as these figures suggest.

How can older people stay safe?

Everyone should follow NHS recommendations on how to reduce their chances of catching or spreading coronavirus. These include keeping to a careful hygiene routine, washing hands thoroughly whenever you return home or after contact with other people, and avoiding contact with anyone who is unwell. 

If you’re not unwell, consider cancelling any routine health appointments. Read our advice on what to do about medical appointments during this time. 

On 23 March the UK government introduced stricter measures to limit people’s movements. Everyone must now stay at home to help contain the spread of the virus. You can only leave your home for very specific reasons: shopping for basic necessities, taking exercise once a day, looking after medical or care needs, or unavoidable travel to and from work.

Also, non-essential shops and community spaces must close until further notice, and all social events and public gatherings of more than two people – excluding people who live together – are banned.

These restrictions apply to people of all ages – even if you don’t have symptoms of the virus or other health conditions.

As well as the new rules on staying at home, the government has also recommended various ‘social distancing’ measures that you should continue to follow. These include:

  • Avoiding contact with anyone who has symptoms of coronavirus, including a high temperature and/or a new and continuous cough.
  • Working from home, where possible.
  • Avoiding busy public places.
  • Keeping a distance of at least two metres when you meet other people out and about (on a walk, for example).
  • Using the telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services.

The government is encouraging everyone to take these steps, but they are strongly advising them for anyone over the age of 70 or those with underlying health issues.

Do I need to self-isolate?

Self-isolation means staying at home and avoiding all direct contact with other people.

At the moment, the government is not asking people to self-isolate unless they have symptoms of the virus or they are considered extremely vulnerable because of serious underlying health conditions.

NHS advice says people should self-isolate at home if they have a high temperature (37.8°C and above) and/or a new, persistent cough. Here’s how the guidance works:

  • If you live alone and have symptoms: Self-isolate for seven days.
  • If you live with others and someone in the home has symptoms: Everyone should stay at home for 14 days from the time the first symptoms appear.
  • If you live with someone who is aged 70 or over, or someone who has a long-term condition or is pregnant: Find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days, if possible. If this isn’t possible, keep away from each other at home as much as you can.

You should only ring the NHS 111 helpline for advice if your condition worsens significantly, or fails to improve after seven days and you can’t get the advice you need using the NHS online support service.

The NHS is also writing to anyone who they consider to be extremely vulnerable because of a serious underlying health condition – including some forms of cancer, severe respiratory conditions and people who’ve had organ transplants. If you are considered to be very vulnerable to the virus, you will be urged to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks.

If you believe you are in one of these extremely vulnerable categories and you’re concerned about how you will manage self-isolation, you can register online for government support.

Understandably, these measures will cause concern for many older people and their families – especially for those who are already at risk of feeling lonely or isolated.

How to avoid becoming isolated

Limiting physical contact with others can be an important way to protect the health of those who are vulnerable, but cutting off all social connections can be harmful for older people.

Now that everyone is being told to stay at home as much as possible, and many people with health concerns are self-isolating, it’s vital that you don’t become too isolated and out of touch.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t cut off contact with family or friends. Keep in touch as much as possible. Speak on the telephone and keep them updated on your situation.
  • Keep up to date with the latest advice from the government and the NHS on the TV, radio or online.
  • Check that you have an adequate supply of any medicines you need. Contact your GP or pharmacy by telephone. Many pharmacies can arrange to fill prescriptions by mail order. Don’t visit the GP or pharmacy if you have coronavirus symptoms.
  • If you have other health concerns, ask your GP surgery if there are telehealth options that could help you to get medical support without leaving home.
  • Make meals and freeze them if you’re concerned about food supplies. Arrange for friends or family to drop off any supplies you need. Read the latest advice on having groceries delivered if you or someone you know is vulnerable or shielding from COVID-19.
  • Stay active around the house or garden and keep moving – even gentle exercise will benefit your health and mood.
  • Check you are receiving all the state benefits you are eligible for. This may become even more important if there is a prolonged period of disruption to your normal life.

Find out more: How to avoid loneliness during the lockdown.


What if I live alone and don’t have friends or family nearby?

If you don’t have close friends or family nearby, you may be more likely to feel isolated. It’s important to take steps to keep in contact with those who can offer support.

  • If possible, give your phone number to friendly neighbours, so they can keep in touch – they may be willing to drop off food, medications or other provisions you need.
  • Find out about local support groups who can offer help. These may be run by a local community centre, charities such as Age UK, local churches and other religious communities. (See more below about community groups that are being set up in response to the crisis.)
  • Contact your local council’s social services department for information about local support services and groups.

Local community support groups

In response to the coronavirus crisis, a number of local volunteer initiatives have been established around the country to support vulnerable or isolated people. Keep an eye out for groups in your area.

These include the Community Action Response to COVID-19, supported by the National Lottery Community Fund. This network of community groups and charities promotes local initiatives to support vulnerable and isolated people during the pandemic, especially those who do not have close family nearby.

Another community initiative, COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK, has been launched to support the most vulnerable during the outbreak, including the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Other local groups are being set up using Nextdoor, a social networking app for neighbourhoods. You can sign up to the app to find local support groups in your area.

What families and friends can do to help

Many people will be concerned about visiting older relatives or neighbours in case they inadvertently expose them to the virus.

The key thing to consider is that while social distancing is essential, older people should be given as much support as possible during this period.

Read our tips on how to support older loved ones during this difficult period.

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