By Meredith Kimple
There is a lot to look forward to when the weather changes; the oppressive summer heat dissipates, the leaves change to vivid shades of orange and gold, and the holiday season is fast approaching. But in these cooler months, our chances of catching the flu or developing a respiratory infection increase significantly. For an otherwise healthy young person, fighting these ailments can prove difficult, but for the elderly, it is a far greater challenge, particularly if their initial illness becomes pneumonia.
Are older individuals more susceptible to pneumonia than younger adults?
Yes, and there are several reasons for this. Some seniors suffer from coughing or swallowing impairments, which increases their risk of infection settling in their lungs. If a senior is physically frail or already has a chronic pre-existing condition, like diabetes or COPD, they may be especially vulnerable to pneumonia. If they spend most of their time indoors with the windows closed, they may unwittingly create the perfect environment for harmful bacteria. Older individuals also have weaker immune systems that leave them unable to fight or stave off infection.
Because older bodies are especially susceptible to illnesses and infections and are not as well equipped to fight them, the potential for a less threatening ailment to develop into pneumonia is of great concern. Help your older loved one take the following steps to prevent pneumonia.
- Get Vaccinated
For both the very young and the elderly, receiving a flu vaccine every year is imperative, partially because in a weakened body the flu can develop into something more serious, like pneumonia. Though the vaccine may not prevent your senior loved one from coming down with the flu, it will help to lessen the severity of their symptoms; this in turn may decrease their chances of getting pneumonia. Keep in mind that the vaccine needs about two weeks to fully take effect, and the height of flu season is in February.
Also, encourage your older loved one to speak with their physician about receiving pneumococcal vaccines. It is now recommended that adults over the age of 65 receive 2. Individuals who have dementia or other chronic conditions, like heart or cerebrovascular disease, are particularly susceptible to pneumococcal pneumonia.
- Maintain Good Hygiene
Although certain strains of pneumonia-causing viruses and harmful bacteria are transmitted through the air via a sneeze or a cough, many people become ill simply by touching contaminated surfaces. Doorknobs, shopping carts, elevator buttons, and railings are just a few examples of things that are regularly touched and handled by several people every day; when we touch these things and then touch our faces without first washing or sanitizing our hands, we run the risk of ingesting a host of nasty germs.
As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, it is not always easy for our older loved ones to maintain good hygiene. Bathing, brushing teeth, and washing hands may either be too physically demanding, or our loved ones do not remember to perform them with the necessary regularity. Encourage them to wash their hands whenever they come home from running errands, and remind them that even rubbing at their eyes with dirty hands can lead to illness. Buy them a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer that they can easily use when out and about.
It is also important that they keep their homes clean; a dark, poorly ventilated, messy, cluttered living space is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. If you live close by, help them do a thorough cleaning at least every two weeks, particularly in the winter months. If you live far away or don’t have the time, speak with your older loved one about hiring someone to clean their home weekly. Because they tend to have weaker immune systems, it is vital that their environments be as free from harmful bacteria as possible.
- Fortify Immune System
As mentioned above, older adults have a weaker immune system than younger adults, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to infection. Still, there are steps they can take to help fortify their immune systems to defend against pneumonia. Eating a healthy, balanced diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and engaging in regular physical activity are excellent ways for our older loved ones to bolster their bodies’ natural defenses.
If cooking their own meals or getting regular exercise is physically difficult or nearly impossible for your older loved one, talk with their physician about sending them to see both occupational and physical therapists. These professionals will help your older loved one develop a personalized plan to accomplish these tasks that is tailored to their needs and abilities.
If your older loved one does have pneumonia, catching the symptoms earlier rather than later is equally important. In addition to the standard fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, phlegmy cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath, adults age 65 and older may also exhibit confusion or a sudden change in their level of awareness. If you notice these symptoms in an older loved one who is 65 or older, it is crucial that you take them to see a doctor; you must be especially vigilant if your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or a significant cognitive impairment, as they may be unable to communicate their symptoms.
While not all cases of pneumonia are fatal, older people are more likely to die from the infection, particularly if they are hospitalized because of it. Pneumonia is also the most common post-surgical infection in hospitals, and when contracted in a hospital, is even more likely to prove deadly. Though most hospitals have plans in place to prevent or minimize infection, it is important that you and your loved one carefully follow your doctor’s postoperative instructions.
As with many ailments that are prevalent in the elderly population, pneumonia is especially likely to affect those who are already frail or compromised by other illnesses. With this in mind, we should do everything we can to promote our senior loved one’s overall health; a strong immune system, good hygiene, healthy habits, and the recommended immunizations are all necessary to provide them with the best defense against infection. Though we can’t protect them from every germ or bacteria, understanding their risk factors and taking the proper preventative measures can help ensure minimal damage to their bodies.