This year’s bad flu season even worse for seniors

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Photo: David Lat/Freeimages

It’s the time of year when you can expect to hear a lot of coughing, sniffling and sneezing in public spaces. I just came back from the dentist and the receptionist sounded like she had flu symptoms. As my parents aged and developed health issues, I became more aware of the flu being a serious concern and not just a pesky ailment.

I’ve been reading a lot about how bad this year’s flu season is in the U.S. The flu deaths of children as well as young adults who were otherwise healthy have captured news headlines. While older people are more susceptible to experiencing severe symptoms when it comes to the flu, this year’s dominant strain is particularly of concern.

The H3N2 flu strain has reared its ugly head this season, STAT reported. Referring to H3N2 as the “problem child of seasonal flu,” this strain tends to strike seniors particularly hard, and usually leads to a spike in flu-related deaths. While it hasn’t been proven that H3N2 is actually more virulent than other strains, its ability to mutate has made it difficult to create a successful vaccine. Researchers also pose a theory of imprinting, in which a person’s ability to fight off the flu is associated with the person’s earliest experiences with the flu. Since H3N2 first emerged in 1968, our elder population would not have been exposed to the strain during childhood.

Another vulnerable population when it comes to the flu is people with dementia. It can be hard to enforce preventative measures such as washing hands when someone has memory issues. Those in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s may wander and pick up objects, or put things in their mouth.

In the last year of his life, my father was only partially verbal. If he was experiencing pain or any other symptom, I’m not certain he could have expressed it. Family caregivers are forced to look for secondary symptoms and related behaviors, such as a person’s appetite wanes because they don’t feel well. Certainly things like a cough or runny nose are obvious, but other symptoms may be more difficult to spot. Their throat hurts so they don’t want to consume food. Their nose is stuffy and they can’t smell food, impacting their appetite. They feel exhausted so they don’t want to get out of bed.

Treating flu symptoms of those with dementia can also be difficult. Anything that disrupts the routine can be a challenge for those with Alzheimer’s. My father was paranoid about taking pills or any kind of medication. Caregivers have to be creative when it comes to treatment. Don’t hesitate to take your loved one to the doctor if you are having difficulty managing symptoms. For those of you with loved ones in facility care, be extra vigilant in observing for flu symptoms when visiting, and make sure issues are addressed promptly by staff.

Here’s to hoping we can all stay healthy and avoid the flu this season.

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Taking care of our ‘elder orphans’

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Photo: Pixabay

Now solidly middle-age and reflecting more upon my own mortality after the deaths of my parents, aging well is a top concern of mine.

Aging well means something different to everyone, but living independently with as little assistance as possible is a priority for me.  I read an article about “elder orphans,” a term used to describe older people who live alone without a support network. As our society has moved away from the nuclear family model, and more people are deciding not to have children, the number of elder orphans will likely grow dramatically over the next several decades. The author of the article believes that baby boomers will also experience an uptick of elder orphans.

Not only are modern families smaller, but members are more likely to be spread out geographically, which can complicate caregiving situations. Women, traditionally the caregivers in the family unit, have demanding careers that limit their ability to be caregivers. (Though we know there are plenty of family caregivers who work full-time and care for a loved one, which can lead to burnout.)

Some people, like my mother, become an unwilling elder orphan after their spouse dies. My mother was able to take care of herself until the last few months of her life, but she did not enjoy living alone. She missed the daily companionship and experienced loneliness living in a rural community without friends or family nearby. Yet even when she was still in good health, I couldn’t convince her to visit the community senior center.

So how can we better take care of our elder orphans? I’ve written before about aging in place and how some communities are being proactive in addressing the needs of their aging population. Infrastructure needs like housing and transportation is integral, but so are communities with residents who have an awareness and dedication to helping their elders age safely. Programs like Meals on Wheels isn’t just about receiving food, but serves as the only regular safety check that many older people living alone receive. The frigid winter weather has encouraged people to check in on their elder neighbors, and that’s something we should be doing all year long.

While we can’t predict how our own health issues will impact our hopes of aging well, we can plant the seeds now to create a safe and welcoming environment for elder orphans.

 

 

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Challenges Facing Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Let’s start 2018 with getting back to basics. I come across so many family caregivers who have received no education or training about their loved one’s condition. If the medical community doesn’t have time to address this, then we will have to teach each other.

Here’s a good overview of Alzheimer’s disease from The Diary of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver blog. I especially like the infographic from GeriatricNursing.org that offers dementia caregivers alternative, healthier responses when they are faced with challenging behaviors.

via Challenges Facing Alzheimer’s Caregivers — The Diary of An Alzheimer’s Caregiver

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Caregiver wishes for 2018

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Now that we have moved into post-Christmas, it’s time to think about 2017’s wins and losses and what we hope to accomplish in the new year.

Despite 2017 being a difficult year for many, it was not without successes when it comes to caregivers. In Hawaii, the Kupuna Caregivers Act was passed, making it the first state to compensate family caregivers who also work full-time. In 2018, as the law is fully implemented in the state, all eyes will be on the success or challenges the legislation generates.

Earlier this month, the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was passed. The bipartisan legislation will create a national strategy to support family caregivers, by providing training and better access to services. It remains to be seen how the act is implemented, once President Trump signs the bill into law. Caregiver advocates are hopeful it’s a step in the right direction.

Even with the threat of looming funding cuts under the new administration, Alzheimer’s research received a $400 million increase in funding as part of the National Institutes of Health budget.

As for challenges, Alzheimer’s research had a disappointing year overall, as admitted by those in the field. Major Alzheimer’s research studies failed to bring about the results and answers experts hoped. But scientists have many areas of Alzheimer’s to still explore, and hopefully the additional research funding will help with this cause in 2018.

The threat of cuts in health care loom large in 2018, though it’s all still up for debate. However one may feel about entitlement programs, cuts to Medicare and Medicaid will hurt caregivers. The uncertain status of the Affordable Care Act also is a concern for caregiver advocates. Health care should be a bipartisan issue, but it is sadly the opposite in the current political climate.

Speaking of controversial issues, immigration also has a direct impact on caregiving. With the current administration’s immigration crackdown, there will be an even greater shortage of paid caregivers than expected over the coming decade. There was already a predicted shortage because of our rapidly aging population, but couple that with a decrease in the immigrant population, and you have the recipe for a disaster. Again, however one may feel about the issue, immigrants provide a great amount of underpaid care to our nation’s elder population. Most Americans will not work for the pitifully low wages caregivers earn.

In 2018, I will be following legislation and programs supporting caregivers that are implemented at the state level. Universal Family Care is being discussed in some states, and I hope the conversation around how to best support family caregivers continues to grow next year.

What do you hope to happen in your state in 2018 to support paid and family caregivers?

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Never too old to love Santa

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Julia Freeman-Woolpert/Freeimages

Ever since my father died five days before Christmas in 2011, the holiday season has been bittersweet for me. He also spent Thanksgiving of that year in the hospital, so both holidays are associated with sickness and death.

But each year, there are stories that reinforce the wonder of the holiday season and lift my spirits.

The story about a lovely woman named Karen, who has dementia but has maintained her lifelong love of Santa Claus, is one of those uplifting stories.

As Karen has moved into the latter stages of dementia and was recently placed in hospice care, her family made the wise decision to capture a beautiful holiday moment that her family will treasure for generations to come.

If you click through on the Facebook post above, you can read the entire story behind the photo shoot. I love the fact that Karen has a Santa doll and speaks Japanese to it!

Of course, not everyone with dementia reacts to holidays in a positive fashion, so it’s best to follow their lead. But don’t be afraid to indulge in some good old-fashioned fun this holiday season. We can all learn a lesson from Karen and her family.

 

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Seeing paradise in a different way

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I just got back from a visit to what was my parents’ condo in New Mexico. It will be called that for the foreseeable future because calling it my “second home” or “mountain getaway” makes me sound wealthy and pretentious, which I’m definitely not.

I made some progress, finally donating my parents clothes and a good chunk of my father’s books. I finally cleaned out the pots and pans cupboard and brought a few more mementos home with me. The numerous repairs the unit needs will have to wait a little longer. There were plenty of deer around, and it snowed just a bit. All in all, it was a refreshing getaway.

I had just gotten out of the shower when I glanced over at the decorative fan that has been hanging above the towel rack since Mom placed it there 12-plus years ago. I was thinking about my mother’s final weeks of life, and how much time we spent in that tiny bathroom, where I helped her with toileting and sponge bathed her until she became bedridden. There was a delicate balance of trying to preserve her dignity and privacy but increasingly recognizing that my mother needed assistance. There was a lot of forced optimism on my part, trying to make the daily tasks as distress-free as possible.

How often I must have glanced at that fan during those difficult times, but never really seeing it. It was only this past week that I realized the fan is hanging upside down.

It’s so obviously upside down, I can’t believe I never noticed!

I couldn’t help but think wryly, “Leave it to Mom to turn paradise on its head.” But when I turned it around to depict the tropical scene as it was intended, it didn’t look right. What momentarily struck me as “paradise lost” was just paradise from a different perspective.

Lesson learned: Never question Mom!

 

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A super-sweet Christmas memory

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When I reflect upon childhood Christmas memories, I can’t help but think about candy. I always looked forward to the candy-filled candy cane Santa (Mom) would place on my door for me to find Christmas morning. Sometimes it was filled with gold foil wrapped chocolate coins, other times it was M&Ms. I also was fond of the mixed assortment found in holiday-themed boxes of chocolate, like Whitman’s. My favorite holiday candy were the petit fours Mom ordered from a catalog. They were like mini cakes, who could resist?

My mom’s favorite Christmas candy by far were chocolate-covered cherries. Though typically a milk chocolate fan, she preferred the dark chocolate-covered cherries. I remember as a kid sifting through the Queen Anne boxes, looking for one of the elusive dark chocolate varieties. Mom would be over the moon if we found the dark variety.

Back then, your choices were milk or dark. Over the years, the Queen Anne company has introduced some additional flavors, including the one I purchased above, black cherry cola. The clerk at the store said he was a fan of the black cherry flavor, bragging he could eat a whole box in one setting. Yikes!

I could only manage two because they are super-sweet. They do capture the cherry cola taste pretty well, and it’s a unique indulgence for the holiday season. I’m not sure if Mom would approve of this nontraditional flavor, but at least I’m carrying on the holiday candy tradition.

Does your family have a favorite holiday candy?

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