Holiday family gatherings evoke thoughts of greeting family members with hugs and kisses, open houses with buffet tables filled with potluck fare and multi-generations spending lots of time inside the house together in front of a cozy fire. But this year, all of those activities are risky–more so for seniors, whose immune systems are not as strong and who may be afflicted with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 and the flu.
Angela Hsu, MD, a board-certified internal and geriatric medicine physician with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, and Mona Gahunia, DO, is a board-certified infectious disease and internal medicine physician with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, share their advice for a festive–and safe–holiday season.
What are considered “low risk” holiday celebrations for seniors?
“Virtual celebrations are the safest,” Hsu says. “If you want to engage in in-person activities, outdoors is by far safer than indoors, and short gatherings are better than long gatherings.” She recommends groups of 10 or less partaking in activities like caroling, sitting by a fire pit, hiking and decorating an outdoor Christmas tree, ideally during the day when temps are warmest–as long as participants are social distancing and wearing a mask. If food is part of the event, Gahunia says to keep tables of different households at least 6-feet apart and appoint a designated person to hand out plates (or serve wrapped ones) rather than doing the meal family- or buffet-style. Make sure masks are mandatory when guests go inside to use the restroom, the space is cleaned after each use and a few windows are open to maintain adequate ventilation.
What precautions should people take when seniors are visiting family?
A road trip is preferable to a flight since it limits interaction with people outside your household, Gahunia says. Before the event, everyone should limit activities to those that are truly necessary. If you get a COVID test in advance, self-isolate five to seven days before the test to avoid a false negative, then continue to isolate after your negative result. And flu shots are essential. “If everyone is immunized, this provides some herd immunity and protects the whole family but particularly those who are more at risk like the elderly and immunocompromised who are more likely to have severe complications,” Hsu says. Finally, if anyone has any cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, they should not attend a family gathering–don’t be afraid to have everyone answer a screening checklist beforehand. But also remember that nothing is a guarantee.
Which seniors should absolutely avoid family gatherings this holiday season?
Exercise even more caution if you have a medical problem or are on treatments that could compromise your immune system,” Hsu advises. This includes diabetes, obesity or an underlying lung disease such as COPD, as well as chemotherapy and radiation.
How can seniors combat holiday depression, especially if they aren’t able to see families?
Work on cards, presents and albums to send to family and schedule remote gatherings and calls to make sure there are things to look forward to. Even more importantly, Hsu says, “don’t let go of your health during the holidays.” Take your medications, get regular exercise, maintain a regular sleep and wake cycle and eat well to keep your body strong and your spirits up. Use a wellness app like Calm to help manage stress, anxiety or loneliness.
What are some alternatives to getting together in person?
Celebrate via videoconferencing, not just by chatting but singing carols, having a dance party, playing games and sharing other online activities to help connect. “This is a great way to carry on your family traditions together, remotely and safely,” Hsu says. “Dress up, decorate and make it festive!” You can also share a virtual meal by having everyone cook the same menu or prepare and drop off dishes to create a shared experience. And don’t forget low-tech options like greeting cards, letters, notes, pictures and gifts that can be dropped off or mailed.
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