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5 Jan 2021

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.
  • Last updated: 05 January 2021
  • Originally published: 17 March 2020

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 due to Covid-19.

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.

How can older people stay safe?

Everyone should follow NHS recommendations on how to reduce their chances of catching or spreading coronavirus.

These include:

  • avoiding close contact with other people (social distancing)
  • wearing a face mask in indoor public settings such as shops or public transport
  • washing hands thoroughly whenever you return home or after contact with other people
  • avoiding contact with anyone who is unwell.

If you develop symptoms of Covid-19 - that's a continuous cough, high temperature or loss of your normal taste and smell - you must stay at home and order a test from the NHS. If you test positive for coronavirus or have been in contact with somebody who has, you will need to self-isolate in your home for at least 10 days.

Advice for people who are more vulnerable or shielding

In response to a sharp rise in infection rates, the government announced a new national lockdown in England on 4 January, which is due to last for at least 6 weeks.

Everyone is expected to follow the new guidance - only leave home for work, essential shopping or exercise, and restrict contact with people from other households.

People with underlying health conditions and those who are 70 or older are still considered to be more vulnerable to the virus than the general population. The government urges everyone in this category to follow the latest rules carefully.

In addition, some people with specific serious health conditions are considered to be 'clinically extremely vulnerable'. If you are in this group you should take extra precautions and follow 'shielding' advice, such as only leaving your house for medical appointments and minimising contact with others as much as possible. This means you should not go to the shops or a pharmacy and should avoid all non-essential travel.

Being extremely vulnerable includes people with severe respiratory conditions, specific cancers, chronic kidney disease and other serious health conditions. If you're identified in this group, you'll receive a letter from the NHS explaining the latest guidance and support that's available to help you.

Support for the extremely vulnerable includes priority access to online supermarket delivery slots and an online tool to let your local council know if you need help. You can also contact the NHS Volunteer Responders if you need help getting to a medical appointment or for other essential support. Or call 0808 196 3646 between 8am and 8pm.

If you haven't already been identified as extremely vulnerable, and you think that you should, you can register for support here.

Can I form a support bubble?

If you live by yourself, you may be able to form a 'support bubble' with another household - even if carers visit you to provide support or you are classed as extremely clinically vulnerable.

Being in a support bubble means you can have close contact with the other household you're linked with. You can visit their house and stay the night, for instance. You should continue to follow social distancing guidance with people outside of your support bubble.

Once you've formed your support bubble, you can't change who's in it. And it's best to form a bubble with a household that lives locally. It's also safer to make a support bubble with the smallest group of people possible. And you 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.

Do I need to self-isolate?

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

You should self-isolate if:

  • you have any symptoms of coronavirus
  • you've tested positive for coronavirus
  • you live with someone who has symptoms or tested positive
  • someone in your support bubble has symptoms or tested positive
  • you're told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace or the NHS COVID-19 app
  • you arrive in the UK from a country with a high coronavirus risk

Get a test as soon as possible if you (or anyone in your household) has any symptoms of coronavirus or you've been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the illness.

If you have symptoms or have tested positive for coronavirus, you'll usually need to self-isolate for at least 10 days.

When will I receive the coronavirus vaccine?

There are currently three coronavirus vaccines approved in the UK. Each jab needs two doses (within 12 weeks of each other) to be fully effective. On January 4 the Prime Minister pledged that all over 70s and vulnerable people will receive the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by mid-February. The target is for all elderly care home residents to receive their first jab by the end of January.

When it's your turn, the NHS will get in touch to invite you to your appointment. This may be via a phone call from your GP practice, or by email, text message or letter.

But watch out for scams. Which? has been made aware of a dangerous fake NHS text telling people they're eligible to apply for the COVID-19 vaccine and asking for their bank details.

What should I do if I have a medical appointment?

Unfortunately, many non-urgent health appointments have been cancelled or postponed during the pandemic. But don't assume your GP, dental or optician appointment has been cancelled. Keep any appointments or procedures you have booked unless you're told not to go.

It's also vitally important to get medical help if you think you need it. So don't put off going to the hospital if you're advised to go. Hospitals have dedicated coronavirus-free zones to treat patients safely if needed.

During the crisis, you'll only be asked to visit your GP surgery if absolutely necessary. But phone and video appointments may be available.

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.

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.
  • 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 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

A number of local volunteer initiatives have been established around the country to support vulnerable or isolated people.

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.

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.

NHS Volunteer Responders complete errands, such as collecting medication or groceries, for people who need to self-isolate. To arrange support for yourself or someone you know call 0808 196 3646 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week).

What families and friends can do to help

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.

  • If your older loved one lives alone, you may be able to form a support bubble. This means you will not need to socially distance from one another. But you can only be in a support bubble with one other household.
  • You can provide care for an older loved one, but you should take precautions such as washing your hands regularly and try to socially distance from them.
  • Keep in touch by telephone or other technology - this can provide reassurance that they will not be isolated or ignored.
  • If your loved one is less confident with technology, help them to set up any useful online services, such as Skype or WhatsApp, online shopping and banking, or TV streaming.
  • 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 your loved one is in a care home, here are the precautions you'll need to take when you visit.