Don’t feel hopeless – even if you are old.

Here’s some good news. Getting sick with COVID-19 isn’t necessarily a death sentence – even if you’re old. 

Norman Swan in his coronavirus update on March 23 finished his report by saying that 85 per cent of old people who get COVID-19 will survive. That’s something for the elderly to hold on to and be encouraged by in this crisis.

Yes, some people who are extremely fit and healthy will die. The most vulnerable will be the frail. This is not to say there won’t be some bewilderingly unexpected deaths in say, young and fit people. And then there are people of all ages who are vulnerable because of weakened lungs, immune system compromises or serious illnesses such as cancer.

But not all old people are frail. So if you are old, despite being more statistically likely to die, you should feel confident of your survival through this crisis – and your right to survival.

When negotiating with health care workers don’t be insulted if you are an 82-year-old who competed this year in a Masters Games in tennis and you are described as being in ‘very old age’. This is a medical term used for anyone over 80.

If your medical notes say ‘fit, very elderly,’ they mean you are over 80 and that the diseases you have are progressive but not life-threatening.

The key is the word ‘fit’. You are not ‘frail’, which is a whole different ball game.

While in isolation at home, keep exercising, maintain good household routines, and ensure you keep working to maintain your mental health – or mental wellness – you have every chance of joining the big party we’re all going to have when this is over, even if it takes a couple of years.

If your medical notes say: ‘frail, elderly’, this means you are over the age of 65 and dependent on others for the activities of daily living. You are vulnerable in this crisis and should feel confident about asking for support and services.

To explain this concept of being frail or frailty more: 

There are several different frailty indexes, for example the Edmonton Frailty index. It’s old itself but it still works. It determines the level of frailty (from 0 to 17) by asking questions about a range of activities that relate to categories such as cognition, general health status, mood and nutrition.

To look at this go to:

If you have a low score on this, your answers will reveal:

  • You are still as sharp as a tack, your mental processes are all good
  • You haven’t had any hospital admissions for several years and if you did, they were for things like a cataract operation
  • You are able to look after yourself. You don’t need any help with the ‘intimate’ things, like having a shower, eating or going to the toilet
  • You ordinarily don’t need other people to buy your food – even though there might be supply restrictions which are a challenge right now  
  • You aren’t taking any medications or if you are they are for ‘background’ issues, such as to keep your cholesterol under control
  • You enjoy eating, cooking and sharing a meal with others, sometimes those you’ve cooked yourself, sometimes others
  • You have a strong daily routine. You rise from bed at about the same time every day (doesn’t matter whether you are an early bird or tend to sleep in) and pursue a range of interests during the day
  • You are happy with your life.

So even though you are old you are not frail.

But don’t go out right now! Stay at home. Find ways to enjoy this.

Among your experiences, read A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s the story of a man exiled to house arrest and what he learns. Our movements will be more restricted even than his and for a shorter time. But observe how he grows. He is all of us now.

For Dr Norman Swan’s excellent Coronavirus podcast, go to:

And here is a link from my friend Arlene, who usually heads up a team of palliative care volunteers in a busy hospital but now must focus on caring for that team and others working in her hospital.

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