Tips for Helping Seniors Through COVID-19

Branch County interviewed Dr. Lauren Vogel, Medical Director of the Hillsdale-Branch- St. Joseph Community Health Agency, about what to look for in COVID-19 symptoms seen in seniors. The interview attempts to clear up and summarize some of the points in a Kaiser Health News article titled “Seniors With COVID-19 Show Unusual Symptoms, Doctors Say.” If you would like more context, the article can be viewed here.

Do you agree with the article that there are different COVID-19 symptoms for seniors?

Yes, in part.


Are there reasons for the symptoms differing? Are there any additional reasons other than the ones Kaiser Health News provides?

The symptoms of the virus infection are the same, but the elderly often have underlying disease that modifies how the COVID-19 modifies their symptoms. Heart and lung disease, neurological impairment, and, because the elderly typically take more medications than the younger population, drug interaction effects may alter the presentation of symptoms. Fever is absent in at least 25% of persons with COVID-19. Cough and shortness of breath will occur as the infection progresses. Early symptoms that appear to be atypical are probably more commonly due to the effects of their underlying conditions in combination with the viral infection. Confusion, dizziness and mental change may occur more frequently in the elderly because their “reserve” is lessened. The elderly may be at higher risk for low oxygen levels when sick and this may modify behavior. I believe that the statements by Dr. Vaughn are correct.

In what ways can those with limited means of communication inform seniors of these symptoms? How can family members assist in looking for and being aware of these symptoms?

Communication with the elderly is a problem, especially in the time of social isolation. They are often not versed in the Internet, social media or how a smartphone works. Many may not read the local paper regularly. Mental decline, a normal process of aging, may alter how the elderly perceive their well-being. Keeping in touch with older family members is the most important way to keep them informed and to reduce the stress of containment. Family members should seek out the best way to keep their older members “in the loop.” This may vary from family to family. They should also try to assess how the person is doing, acting, responding and react should they sense a change in behavior.

What should a senior or family member do if a senior adult experiences one of these symptoms?

Should any person including the elderly experience symptoms that could suggest COVID-19 they should contact their care provider for guidance. When in doubt, call 911.

Anything else you would add?

It’s also important to realize that all the other significant diseases effecting the elderly still need consideration. Heart and Lung disease still occur in the same frequency, in spite of COVID-19, and access to emergency services and their primary care giver should be accessed by a family member. Putting important phone numbers in a common place such as on the refrigerator is important. It’s also important for a family member to question their elderly relative to ascertain that they know where the information is located and how to get in contact should they need to.