By: Mary L. Collins
My great aunt was well into her 90’s when she passed away some years ago. She was an independent, active person who continued to work as a volunteer at her church, walking the three blocks from home, up the steep steps of the cathedral’s entry, spending many hours there multiple times a week to dust the pews – of which there were hundreds. She also mowed her own lawn – with a push mower – the old-fashioned kind that relied not on a gas-powered engine, but on physical strength.
You might say she had an indomitable spirit. She did, indeed. But she did not have an indomitable body.
When my great aunt passed away in the spring of the year, it followed two weeks of sickness due to a cold that evolved into pneumonia. That evolved into a hospital stay, and finally, sadly, her eventual passing. It is not uncommon for vulnerable elders to succumb to pneumonia. Respiratory illnesses younger persons can more easily recover from are often extremely risky when contracted by an elder.
This is not an alarmist’s tale, but one of practicality and consideration. Given that flu season is upon us, and with the recent frigid temperatures, it’s especially important that the most vulnerable among us are shielded in all the ways that we can provide it from exposure to illness. It is essential to be vaccinated and be provided proper medical care to prevent outbreaks of the flu and other airborne illnesses, but it is equally important to be aware of one’s exposure.
It will probably come as no surprise that my great aunt had been exposed to someone who visited her when they were still experiencing flu-like symptoms. Those of us who are younger and often “tough it out” when we are sick do not always recognize when we might still be contagious to others and when we might risk putting a more vulnerable loved one in harm’s way. Contagious winter illnesses can create a real risk for the elderly, young children and the more vulnerable among us. It is not our intent to cause harm, but we sometimes do so without knowing.
At The Manor, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center and residence to approximately 88 vulnerable elderly people at any given time, staff education, and training is critical to maintaining a safe environment for residents, staff and visitors alike. Policies and procedures are in place for staff who are taught what are “best practices” when working with residents who may have shown symptoms that could be contagious. In closed environments like The Manor, it is critical that these procedures be followed to minimize the risk to residents, visitors, and fellow staff. According to Staff Educator and Infection Preventionist, Nicole Keaty, RN,
“We are working very hard to keep our residents and staff healthy at all times but especially during the winter months when Flu and other viruses are more prevalent. We ask the community’s help in this effort. We love to see family and friends visit the residents but we strongly encourage that if you are ill, feeling under the weather, or have family members who are ill, it may be better to not visit.”
Getting an annual flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect yourself and your family from the flu. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations. It’s not too late to schedule yours. Contact your health care provider to find out what’s best for you.
Keaty offered a few tips on what works best when visiting a loved one during cold and Flu season. “Most viruses are contagious before we are having symptoms. If you do visit The Manor, we have hand sanitizer at our entrances as well as masks. These are for visitors’ use. We recommend that visitors sanitize upon entering and again when you leave so you don’t bring anything home with you.” She offered that masks are available for visitor’s use should you have a cough, cold or sore throat or if you are visiting a resident who has any respiratory illness. And, the tried and true recommendation of frequent handwashing is also one of the best things we all can do to prevent the spread of any viruses.
The public has a critical role in this prescription for health care management – and it is a simple one:
“If you are not feeling well or believe you may be suffering from a cold, Flu or other communicable illness; it is always best to err on the side of caution and NOT visit your loved one until you are no longer contagious.”
Your consideration of your loved ones includes your own self-care. By keeping yourself healthy, you also protect the people you love most.
Mary L. Collins is the Marketing Director at Lamoille Home Health & Hospice. A 2014 Home Care Elite Top Agency, LHH&H is one of eleven VNAs of Vermont home health and hospice agencies serving Vermont. She also serves as Marketing Director at The Manor, a 4 star nursing home and short term rehabilitation facility in Morrisville, VT, and she chairs the Lamoille Region Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.