It’s that time of year again – cold and flu season. Now is the time to be vigilant about doing the little things necessary to keep seniors healthy through the holidays and into the spring.

People 65 years old or older are at greater risk of serious complications from the flu compared with younger adults because the body’s immune system defenses become weaker with age. As much as 90% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people 65 years and older and up to 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur for people in that age group.

Many people wonder how to avoid the flu, and the most effective option is simple. The best way to stop the flu is an annual vaccination. Many senior living, care and service organizations like Bethesda provide flu shots to all of its long-term care residents. Shots have even been mandatory for employees since 2014.

“For us, October is flu shot month company-wide,” says Michelle Glass, Bethesda’s Vice President of Home and Community Based Services. “We have a ‘flu crew’ that goes to each of our communities to administer vaccinations. We want to do everything we can to keep our residents safe and healthy, and making sure everyone gets a flu shot is the right thing to do.” In 2016, Bethesda provided approximately 2,000 flu shots to residents and employees.

Why do we do it? The effect of flu vaccinations is clear. Between 5 – 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu every year. Yet those who get vaccinated are 20% less likely to contract the virus.

What can you do to fight spreading flu to seniors?

There are a few simple but important things that can be done to help keep seniors healthy. Here are five important tips you need to know:

  1. Get your flu shot. It’s a good idea for seniors to check with their doctor to make sure they don’t have any health issues that could be aggravated by the vaccination. But, it’s rare for shots to be an issue. Doctors recommend vaccinations for almost everyone from the age of six months old and up.
  2. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. To completely get rid of the viruses from your skin, you need to scrub hard for 20 seconds or more. A good way to time yourself is to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while scrubbing the backs of your hands, between your fingers, under your nails. It doesn’t matter if the water’s hot or cold. The very act of scrubbing will physically remove the germs.
  3. Keep alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy. If you can’t get to soap and water, a good hand sanitizer is the next-best thing. It will kill cold and flu germs on your skin.
  4. If you have the flu, don’t go to work. People don’t want to interact with anyone who isn’t feeling good. Stay home. It’s that simple. If you have to be around people who are sick, don’t touch them and be careful not to handle anything they’ve touched. Remember, a warm smile can be a better greeting than a handshake when it’s cold and flu season.
  5. Keep your surroundings clean. Door knobs, light switches and other things that are usually touched by multiple hands are culprits in spreading germs. Bethesda housekeeping makes sure that things like elevator buttons, door handles, railings and other items that multiple people are likely to touch are frequently wiped clean.

What should you do if you get sick?

It’s important to get medical care quickly if you’re a senior citizen and you suspect you have the flu. Antiviral drugs can be effective – but they work best when they’re used in the early stages of the disease.

It is important to pay attention to your symptoms, to take action as soon as possible. The first sign of symptoms could include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Vomiting and diarrhea are also possibilities. People often associate a fever with the flu, but sometimes you can have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

“I know it sounds simplistic, but the best way to fight the flu is to not catch it in the first place,” says Deni O’Malley, Director of St. Andrews & Bethesda Home Health. “The way you can do that is to get your flu shot, be careful not to spread germs and wash your hands carefully. Do that and hopefully you’ll be flu-free all season.”

Without taking action, the flu can easily cause more severe problems. Serious complications from the flu can include pneumonia, inflammation of the heart or brain, sepsis and multi-organ failure. It can also worsen chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fall victim to cold and flu season. The flu typically lasts 3-7 days in healthy people, but it can last longer in seniors because of their weaker immune systems. This is why it is so important to take precautions at senior living facilities.

It is important for all seniors to stay healthy, especially over the holidays, and here at Bethesda we offer free flu shots to all staff members!