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Coronavirus: how families and friends can support older loved ones

You may need to limit contact with older loved ones and friends during the coronavirus crisis. Here's what you can do to help them stay safe and avoid feeling isolated.

Coronavirus: how families and friends can support older loved ones

Last updated:11 January 2021

First published: 17 March 2020

Older people are at greater risk of serious health complications if they come into contact with coronavirus.

With the continuing spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), many people will be concerned about visiting older relatives or neighbours in case they inadvertently expose them to the virus.

While it may be necessary to limit close contact with vulnerable people, there are plenty of ways for family and friends to help older people avoid becoming lonely or isolated.



Do older people need to self-isolate?

In order to reduce the spread of coronavirus, the UK government has reintroduced strict ‘lockdown’ measures to limit people’s movements. Everyone in the UK must stay at home. People are allowed to leave their homes only for ‘very limited purposes’: shopping for basic necessities, taking exercise once a day, looking after medical or care needs, or unavoidable travel to and from work.

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 people who are 70 or older are more vulnerable to the virus than the general population.

Some older people will have been asked to ‘shield’ by the NHS because they are considered ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’. This group should take extra precautions, such as only leaving their house for medical appointments and minimising contact with others as much as possible.

You can contact the NHS Volunteer Responders if you need to arrange support for an older loved one who is clinically vulnerable by calling 0808 196 3646 between 8am and 8pm.

Can I continue to visit older loved ones?

One important exception to the rules on staying at home is that people may still leave their home ‘to help a vulnerable person’. This means you can continue to visit an older loved one, if you are doing so to provide them with essential care or support.

Purely social visits are not allowed unless you are in a ‘support bubble’.

Other important guidelines you should continue to follow:

  • Anyone experiencing symptoms related to the virus (that’s a new continuous cough, high temperature or loss of taste or smell), however mild, should self-isolate and avoid contact with an older person.
  • If your loved one has symptoms, they should self-isolate for at least ten days and get a test from the NHS – see the NHS guidance on when to self-isolate.
  • If you do need to visit them for important reasons, you should minimise the time spent indoors, try to keep a distance of two metres (about three steps) at all times and avoid any unnecessary physical contact.
  • Follow strict hand hygiene routines before, during and after visiting.

Support bubbles

People who live alone may be able to form a ‘support bubble’.  A support bubble means you can have close contact with another household and you will not need to maintain social distance with them. You can visit their house and stay the night. It’s best to form a support bubble with someone who lives locally to prevent the virus spreading between different areas.

You can form a support bubble with another household if:

  • you live alone – even if carers visit to provide support
  • you are the only adult in your household who does not need continuous care as a result of a disability
  • your household includes a child who is under the age of one
  • your household includes a child with a disability who requires continuous care and is under the age of 5
  • you are aged 16 or 17 living with others of the same age and without any adults
  • you are a single adult living with one or more children who are under 18.

You should not form a support bubble with a household that is already part of another support bubble.

Older people may want to avoid forming a bubble with a household that is more exposed to coronavirus, such as people who are healthcare workers.

If anyone in your support bubble develops symptoms or tests positive for coronavirus, you will need to self-isolate.

When will my loved one receive the vaccine?

Three COVID-19 vaccines have now been approved for use in the UK. Two of these (the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines) are currently being rolled out to priority groups. Two doses of the jab (given up to 12 weeks apart) are required for the best chances of protection.

On January 4, during the announcement of England’s new lockdown, the Prime Minister pledged that all over-70s and vulnerable people would receive the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by mid-February. The government has now said that all elderly care home residents will receive the first dose of the coronavirus jab by the end of January.

How families and friends can help prevent isolation

If an older friend or loved one lives alone and can’t form a support bubble, it is vital that they don’t become isolated and out of touch.

The key thing to consider is that while social distancing is essential right now, older people should be given as much support as possible during this period. Cutting off social connections can be harmful for older people.

Here’s what you can do the help:

  • Keep in touch by telephone as much as possible – this can provide reassurance that they will not be isolated or ignored.
  • Consider technology options to keep in touch – apps like Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime can help provide much-needed face-to-face contact.
  • If your loved one is less confident with technology, help them to set up any useful digital services, such as online shopping and banking or streaming services for TV and movies.
  • Find out what supplies they need and arrange to drop off food and other provisions, or help them to arrange online deliveries.
  • Set up a contingency plan for a friend or loved one. Make a list of key contacts, medical information, and who can step in if a main carer is unavailable. Find more guidance from Carers UK on how to make a plan.
  • If it will be difficult to provide regular help to a vulnerable loved one, explore how assistive technology and telecare options could help keep them safe at home in the longer term.

If you’re concerned about the safety of a loved one who is stuck at home, read our home safety tips for older people – 8 ways older people can stay safer at home.


How to arrange essential supplies

If you can’t visit the person you care for in-person because you have to self-isolate, you can register for government support (England-only) on behalf of someone with a condition that makes them extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. This way you’ll be able to ask for help getting deliveries of essential supplies such as food.

If you’re not sure whether the person you care for has a medical condition that makes them ‘extremely vulnerable’, it’s best to register anyway. Have their NHS number to hand if possible.

There is alternative online guidance for: Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Many local support groups have been set up around the country by charities and voluntary groups. These groups are helping to deliver essential supplies to people who are vulnerable or self-isolating.

Some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets are introducing special opening hours and priority online delivery slots for NHS workers and vulnerable people. It may also be worth contacting local shops, cafes and restaurants as some are taking orders via telephone and will deliver to vulnerable or isolated people.

Can I visit my loved one in a care home?

Care home visits were suspended during the first lockdown in March. During the current lockdown, outdoor and ‘screened’ visits which comply with strict ‘COVID-safe’ guidelines, including social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) may be permitted.

However, you should contact the home in advance before attempting to visit. Don’t attempt to visit if you feel unwell, however mild.


This article was first published on 17 March 2020 and has been updated. The latest update was on 11 January to include new guidelines. Additional reporting by Natalie Healey.

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