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Flu Hurts Nursing Homes Residents in More Ways than Illness

January 15th, 2013

The 2012-2013 flu season is turning out to be one of the worst and most dangerous in years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, as of this week, most of the country is experiencing high levels of influenza and influenza-like illness (ILI). Nationwide, 47 states report widespread geographic flu activity.

Since October 1, 2012, more than 3700 people have been hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated illness. At least 20 children have died from the flu or its complications. These numbers indicate that this year’s flu is now officially an epidemic.

This especially bad news for people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Of course, there are the risks associated with flu: About 90% of flu-related deaths occur in people age 65 and older, mainly because immune defenses become weaker with age.

But there are two other reasons why flu season is tough on nursing home residents. First, visitors are limited, and in some cases, banned entirely. Hospitals and care facilities across the country are working to protect the sick and elderly by limiting their exposure to possible sources of the flu virus–mainly, visitors who unwittingly carry the bug.

Second, and more concerning, is that caregiving in general suffers. According to an article published in The New York Times, nurses and health aides fall ill and can’t tend to the patients in their care… departments may need to be shut down due to understaffing as more service providers call in sick… social activities are halted… and the elderly become more isolated than usual, which can be confusing and distressing. Some of the elderly may refuse to eat or take their medications when their usual routine is disrupted, or when their trusted caregiver isn’t available.

In Collinsville, Ill., a city of about 42,000 that is 23 miles east of St. Louis, 20 percent of the staff at Home Instead Senior Care have called in sick, either struck by the flu themselves or at home taking care of a sick child.

“We’ve never seen it as bad as it is this year,” said Skip Brown, the agency’s owner. In previous years, about 5 percent of the staff have taken ill during flu season.

What to Do

Doctors and facility administration are asking anyone with symptoms of flu or upper respiratory illness–caregivers, family members, and visitors–to stay away from hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes of older people to reduce the risk of passing on an infection.

But, it is a good idea to call in regularly to check on the health status of your older relative or friend. Ask specifically about potentially dangerous symptoms, including unusual lethargy, breathing problems, fatigue, or uncontrollable or painful cough.

If residents in nursing home do get sick, they will be encouraged to stay in their rooms as much as possible to keep the illness from spreading to other residents. If they do leave their rooms, they will be encouraged to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer.

Washing hands frequently is a great idea for everyone during flu season, and if you are out in public, never touch your face without first washing your hands or using hand sanitizer. You can pick up germs on your hands when you use a communal pen at the grocery store or push open a door that has been touched by someone sick…then, if you put your hand to your mouth, nose, or eyes, the virus can enter your system.

Stay healthy!

RESOURCES

To learn more about the flu from the CDC, click here: Seasonal Influenza (Flu)

To read the full article in The New York Times, click here: As Flu Rages, Caregiving Suffers