Should I Still Consider Assisted Living for My Loved Ones During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Kimberly Langdon, M.D. – Board Certified Physician
The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly everyone’s daily lives across the United States to some extent, but the senior community has been hit especially hard due to their increased risk of contracting a serious case of the virus. In the U.S., there have been over 120,000 confirmed cases, and over 2,000 deaths at the time of writing – a number that’s expected to rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), older adults are especially at risk. According to a March 26th report the fatality rate for adults between 75 and 84 ranges from 4% to 11% and the fatality rate for adults 85 and older ranges from 10% to 27%.
If you have an older loved one, COVID-19 may put you in a tough situation due to their increased risk. Seniors need to be even more diligent about social distancing than the rest of the population. This distancing can make it difficult to determine how to handle your loved one’s care while also keeping them safe, especially if they require daily assistance or care.
While it may seem that group environments like assisted living facilities are not the right choice right now, for many, it’s still the best option. Considering the enhanced safety measures senior living communities are taking, moving into a senior community may make more sense than living alone and not getting adequate care.
To help seniors and their loved ones make this vital decision, we’ve outlined alternative care options for seniors, as well as which seniors should still consider assisted living. Additionally, this report provides an in-depth look at what senior living communities are doing and how you can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Determining the Appropriate Care Options
Coronavirus spreads easily from person-to-person, a phenomenon known as “community spread,” which makes apartment complexes and senior living communities an environment in which the virus can thrive. This may make some people hesitant to move their loved one into an assisted living facility right now, even if their loved one needs care. However, it’s important to note that remaining in the home can pose risks for seniors, too, whether they live alone or with family.
While residential care facilities like assisted living communities are implementing strict health and safety measures to prevent community spread, it may be harder to implement the same kinds of policies in your own home. For example, if your elderly loved one lives with you, someone who lives in the home could pick up the virus while running errands and unknowingly pass the virus to your older loved one. Or, if the senior’s main family caregiver gets sick, the family may need to choose whether to potentially pass the illness onto their older loved one or to leave their loved one temporarily without care. Additionally, seniors who live alone will most likely be completely isolated for the foreseeable future as people follow social distancing guidelines. This can present dangers for both physical and mental health.
When you consider the steps that senior communities are taking, such as enacting strict social distancing rules and other safety protocols, and the fact that residents do not need to leave for essentials, your loved one may be safer there right now. Senior living communities also have several caregivers on staff, ensuring that residents will not have to go without care in the event that someone on the staff is unable to work during the virus outbreak.
Who is a Good Fit for Residential Care During Coronavirus?
If your loved one is not currently living in a residential care facility, you may have put plans to move them in on pause. But, for many seniors, assisted living is still the right choice. In general, the following people are good candidates for assisted living:
- Seniors who need regular assistance with the activities of daily living such as eating, bathing, and dressing
- Seniors who live alone and have a medical condition that may require urgent attention
- Seniors who have dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another form of memory impairment, as this can make it difficult to follow hygiene protocols
- Seniors living with any family members who are unable to social distance or isolate (i.e., medical professionals, grocery workers)
- Seniors who live with any family member who has traveled internationally in the last two weeks
- Seniors who live in a home with other people who are not isolating and the senior does not have their own bedroom and/or bathroom where they can isolate
Who Should Consider Alternative Care Options?
While assisted living is a good fit for many seniors, it is not the right choice for everyone. Below are some situations in which seniors should seek other care options:
- Seniors who only need occasional help around the house, or only need help for a short period of time may be better suited for home care until the coronavirus pandemic is over.
- Seniors who have an extensive support system of loved ones who can provide care while remaining isolated to prevent exposure to the coronavirus may be better off temporarily putting off a move to a senior living community.
- Seniors who are exhibiting any symptoms of coronavirus, cold, or flu should hold off on moving into an assisted living facility until medically cleared by a doctor to help protect other residents
What to Look for in an Assisted Living Community
While many senior living communities have risen to the challenge of protecting their residents’ health and safety at all costs, not everyone is taking the proper precautions. The coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of carefully filtering out communities that don’t maintain the highest standards of cleanliness and preventative safety measures.
As a senior living referral service, Caring.com takes this responsibility very seriously. We are committed to helping you and your loved ones find the care you need at a community that has the highest standards of coronavirus preparedness. Below, we’ve listed some of the precautions many communities are taking. If you are considering moving your loved ones into a community, we highly recommend that you review the following list, and find out what steps the community is taking.
Proper Precautions for Assisted Living Communities
The following are a few of the steps many senior living communities are taking to protect their residents. It’s important to note that you should always make sure to follow the latest guidance from the CDC and local government directives, and be sure that you are taking action based on reliable information directly from the source.
Many senior living communities are currently instructing any would-be visitors not to enter and to postpone their visit if they have recently been sick or are showing any signs of illness. Anyone who has been exposed to someone who is sick, whether with coronavirus or another illness, within the last two weeks is also being asked not to enter most senior living facilities at this time. In some areas, communities are not allowing any visitors at all. Facilities that are allowing visitors are requiring all people to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer immediately upon entering the facility. The goal is to eliminate the risk of visitors bringing coronavirus or any other type of immune-weakening illness into the facility.
Staff are being instructed to stay home if they have symptoms of any type of illness
In addition to restricting visitors who may be sick, staff members are also being instructed to stay home if they are exhibiting any symptoms of coronavirus or the cold, flu, or any other illness. Because in most communities staff members spend time with many different residents throughout the day, if a staff member is sick, the likelihood of them passing the illness along to multiple recipients is high. Thus, it is especially important that staff do not work when there’s any chance that they may be sick and could introduce an illness to the facility.
Postponing activities and limiting access to communal spaces
Because residents live in apartment-style units and tend to eat, relax, and congregate in communal areas, it can be difficult to implement social distancing in senior care communities. To help prevent the spread of coronavirus, some facilities are postponing or altering group activities for the foreseeable future and closing common areas or restricting access to these areas to limited hours. This gives staff more time to adequately clean the areas.
Enhanced cleaning procedures
While senior living facilities always need to maintain cleanliness, right now, facilities are adhering to more strict cleaning procedures. The CDC recommends that long-term care facilities frequently clean any and all frequently-touched surfaces and shared areas with hospital-grade disinfectants. If facilities are choosing to leave common areas open for residents, they should be especially diligent in disinfecting surfaces like couches and shared exercise equipment multiple times throughout the day.
Facilities are regularly screening residents for any symptoms of coronavirus, specifically respiratory distress. Daily screening can help facilities catch any cases of coronavirus early and prevent further community spread. In addition to daily health screenings, facilities are scheduling regular hand washings throughout the day.
For more information about steps communities are taking, here are a few examples of communities that are taking important precautions to protect their residents:
Alternative Care Options
As previously mentioned assisted living may not be the right choice for everyone. Whether because of cost or needs, some seniors may be better suited for one of these other options to keep them healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-home care can provide seniors with assistance they need without breaking social distancing guidelines
If a senior needs more care than their loved ones can provide or their normal caregiver is unable to be with them due to illness, in-home care is a great option. Seniors should be practicing social distancing as much as possible, but receiving care from a healthy individual should not pose much risk, so long as the home care aide has not been exposed to coronavirus themselves and is following CDC protocols. The CDC strongly encourages health care workers to practice proper hand hygiene, specifically the use of hand sanitizer with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. The CDC says that the active ingredients in these recommended alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate viruses that are genetically related to COVID-19.
Nursing homes provide higher-level medical care for high-risk seniors
Assisted living facilities have limits on how much medical care they can provide, typically just offering basics such as first-aid and medication management. For seniors with more complex medical needs, a nursing home is a better option, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Seniors with underlying health conditions, in particular, should be in an environment where they’re able to receive high-level medical care at all times. As reported by Stat News, a study of the comorbidity of COVID-19 and other health conditions found that those with a chronic disease like diabetes or kidney disease have a 79% higher risk of requiring intensive care for or dying as a result of coronavirus.
Assistive technology devices ensure that isolated seniors who live independently can still get help in an emergency
Following social distancing protocols, caregivers and family members are likely checking in on their older loved ones in person less frequently. If you’re worried about a senior who will be spending more time alone than they usually do, a medical alert system can provide you with peace of mind and your loved one with an easy way to get help if they are alone during an emergency. You can also utilize everyday technology like video chatting to stay connected with your loved one. Devices such as an echo show can facilitate a daily family “check-in” video chat to ensure that your older loved one is feeling well and has all of their needs met.
What You Can Do to Limit the Spread
Though there is currently no cure or vaccination for coronavirus, there are preventative measures that all people can take to help prevent the spread of the virus. In long-term care communities, these strategies are even more important.
The following strategies, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are the first line of defense against spreading coronavirus.
Use proper “hand hygiene” techniques
While everyone knows that washing their hands is important, there are special “hand hygiene” measures that one should take if they’re spending time in a long-term care facility. According to the CDC, this includes using alcohol-based hand sanitizer immediately before and after touching a patient and/or their surrounding environment, washing hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds minimum, and wearing and changing gloves regularly (though gloves are not a substitute for proper hand hygiene).
Clean your phone and avoid touching your face
One thing that everyone should be doing- whether or not they interact with seniors – is to avoid touching their face, especially mouth, nose, and eyes. Pathogens can easily enter our bodies via our mouth, nose, and eyes, so keeping your hands away from these areas can help protect you from infection. Another key is to disinfect your phone, which can easily pick up germs and pass them to your body while you hold it near your face to speak.
Do not allow family or friends to visit if sick
While it may be hard to turn visitors away, those in long-term care communities should be wary of having any family or friends visit while they’re sick. Even if the person is not carrying coronavirus, introducing a common cold or flu into the senior care community environment may make other residents more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. And if you have a loved one living in a long-term care community and suspect you may be coming down with a bug, it’s best to stay home until your symptoms have cleared up. You may also want to talk to your doctor to make sure your symptoms are not contagious before visiting your loved one out of extra precaution.
Prevent exposure in the community
The following general measures are recommended by the CDC to reduce transmission of infection:
- Diligent hand washing, particularly after touching surfaces in public (use of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is a reasonable alternative if the hands are not visibly dirty)
- Respiratory hygiene (eg, covering the cough or sneeze)
- Social distancing of at least 6 feet
- Avoiding crowds (particularly in poorly ventilated spaces) if possible and avoiding close contact with ill individuals
- Cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces that are frequently touched – the CDC has issued guidance on disinfection in the home setting
In particular, older adults and individuals with chronic medical conditions should be encouraged to follow these measures. Here are a couple of other tips:
- Individuals who are caring for patients with suspected or documented COVID-19 at home should wear a tightly fitting medical mask and use gloves when in the same room as that patient and should change upper clothing after each exposure.
- Individuals who become ill (eg, with fever and/or respiratory symptoms) should stay home from school or work.
Have more questions? Caring.com works closely with senior living communities to know their latest policies and procedures. Our Family Advisors are available to answer any questions you may have and connect you to specific communities: (800) 973-1540. As always, our services are free to you.