It took six weeks, several long, frustrating phone calls, and a consultation with Apple Care before Laurie Jacobs got her 89-year-old father up and running on FaceTime. Jacobs, who is a geriatrician by training and is now the chair of the Department of Medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, was worried about how her parents were coping during the pandemic. They live in a long-term care community, but they felt isolated and lonely. Over the phone, Jacobs couldn’t tell how her mother, who has some cognitive decline, was feeling or if she was walking comfortably. “The communication at a distance is very difficult,” she says. “You don’t always get the whole picture with an older adult on the telephone.”
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And, like so many other Americans in quarantine, her parents were running out of things to do. “They seemed bored and somewhat depressed by the lack of stimulation, so further ways for them to interact was very important,” says Jacobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents a doubly complicated situation for older people: Not only are they at higher risk of contracting the disease, and more likely to develop severe infections and die from it, but they are also the most likely to struggle with—and suffer from— the consequences of prevention strategies like social distancing. For people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or severely reduced mobility, social-distancing guidelines can be impractical and nearly impossible to follow, making prevention and treatment even more complicated.
Seniors, especially those above age 80, have been hard hit by the virus. That’s in part because they often have comorbidities like diabetes and hypertension, which make them more likely to be hospitalized. Doctors aren’t sure why those conditions make the effects of the virus worse, but both conditions are associated with greater expression of the ACE2 receptor, a protein on human cells that the coronavirus latches onto to start replicating.
Many older adults also have chronic, low-grade inflammation, a state called “inflammaging,” in which the body is unable to control the release of cytokines, small proteins that are supposed to help modulate the body’s immune response. This dysregulation could put seniors at great risk of “cytokine storms,” a condition reported in severe Covid-19 cases during which a patient’s immune system spins out of control and starts damaging healthy organs.
Seniors are also more vulnerable because of immunosenescence, a slow deterioration of the immune system that is a normal part of aging. When people are young, the immune system has a big reservoir of T-cells and B-cells ready to fight infections. These are called “naive cells,” meaning they haven’t encountered any bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens yet. When those naive cells encounter an infection, some of them learn to recognize that pathogen and become ready to fight it off if the body gets exposed to it again. “As we age, we lose that reservoir of T-cells and B-cells,” says Wayne McCormick, head of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Washington. “It’s hard for us to make new ones, although some people seem to retain that capacity better than others.” That means the person’s body may mount a less robust immune system response than it would have done when they were younger.
Immunosenescence also means that diseases present differently in seniors, which may make it difficult for their doctors or caretakers to recognize a Covid-19 infection. While many Covid-19 cases include fever, for example, in seniors the symptoms might also include confusion, delirium, sleepiness, or loss of appetite. That may be because the virus has reached important organs like the brain, kidneys, or digestive system. “As one gets older, the virus can invade without being resisted as much, and then some really bad things begin to happen,” says William Greenough, clinical chief of the ventilator rehabilitation unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Particularly in older people, we’re seeing clogging of blood vessels in the brain and kidneys.”
There’s still a lot scientists and doctors don’t understand about the new coronavirus, but Greenough says the virus appears to be much more complicated, and to affect more parts of the body, than previously thought. Recent reports of “Covid toe,” stroke, and blood clots suggest the virus affects the vascular system in addition to the respiratory system. For older adults who have more wear and tear on their blood vessels, or who may have constricted vessels, this could be particularly destructive.
Not only are seniors more biologically susceptible, but many of them live in situations that make catching the virus more likely because they interact daily with other people, many of whom are themselves more likely to catch the virus. Some seniors live in their own homes and get assistance from health aides who may take public transit, serve multiple clients, and—like many other essential workers—are unable to shelter in place while doing their job. “They were subject to getting Covid early in the epidemic and brought it home,” says Jacobs.
The situation is analogous to what has happened in some long-term care facilities, where the coronavirus has spread like wildfire between staff and residents, Jacobs continues. Even though seniors are more likely to develop a severe infection, many are instead asymptomatic carriers, making it hard to catch the virus without testing an entire facility. One of the worst early outbreaks happened at a long-term care facility in Kirkland, Washington, and by mid-April half of the state’s Covid-19 deaths occurred in such facilities. Other serious outbreaks have happened at senior homes in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maine, due in part to dense living conditions, understaffing, and a lack of personal protective equipment. And recently, health authorities have realized that the virus is spreading rapidly in work communities where employees are housed in crowded conditions, share long commutes on shuttles, or cannot easily socially distance, like meat packing or farmwork.
Whether they live in a long-term care facility, nursing home, or in a family home, many seniors have unique needs that make it impossible for them to socially distance. Some need help eating, washing, going to the bathroom, or moving around. “You can’t do that using Facetime,” says Eric Widera, a professor at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in geriatric and palliative medicine.
Yet for older adults living in their homes, social distancing can cause isolation and loneliness. Most of the places people would go to socialize—senior centers, libraries, churches, temples, or synagogues—are closed. Families are discouraged from visiting. “We’re worried it’s going to cause a wave of true loneliness,” says Widera, which can lead to serious health problems including worse cognitive function, higher blood pressure, and heart disease.
While older adults are the most likely to catch Covid-19, they also may be less likely to benefit from a vaccine. Because seniors don’t raise the same immune response that younger adults and children do, they generally don’t respond as well to vaccines. They also aren’t always included in clinical trials. “If you look at the last many decades of research, the vast majority of randomized control trials do not include older adults. And if they do, they don’t include frail older adults, who are at risk for this,” says Widera. “That’s one of our worries: That we’ll be looking at potential treatments, vaccines, but not actually testing it on the people who are at the most risk of developing this disease.”
For people with dementia or other kinds of cognitive decline, things get even more complicated. Widera points out that people with dementia may not remember they need to wash their hands more often or refrain from touching their face. And dementia patients often wander. In communal living or care facilities, they might walk in and out of other patients’ rooms, down the hall, or into common living areas, all of which increase the likelihood of catching and transmitting the disease. Diagnosing Covid-19 in those patients could be even harder, too. “People with cognitive impairment may not be able to report their symptoms very well,” says McCormick. “Even if they had a cough an hour ago, they may not remember that they did.”
Patients with dementia also have unique challenges if they end up in the hospital. Covid-19 symptoms can worsen their confusion and delirium, as can being in an unfamiliar setting like a hospital room. These patients may be terrified when they’re separated from their family or their usual caregivers and are being tended to by staff covered head-to-toe in protective gowns and masks. With nurses trying to limit patient interactions to reduce the need for this protective gear, patients are often isolated for much of the day.
Martine Sanon, a professor of geriatric and palliative medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says that usually they encourage family members to be part of the care team and to help orient and comfort their loved ones, but with limited protective equipment, and with fears about spreading the virus, those options aren’t available. “The families have been tremendously wonderful,” she says, often using FaceTime to play favorite music in the background or to call patients by a familiar nickname. “That does help.”
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At Hackensack University Medical Center, Jacobs says usually they try to use non-pharmacological methods to help soothe distressed and confused patients. “The way we manage that usually in the hospital is basically staff sitting with a patient, reorienting them, using music, using touch,” she says. But with Covid-19, it’s too dangerous to have someone sit with a contagious patient all day. Instead, the hospital now relies on medication to calm patients down.
While mortality rates are higher for older adults with Covid-19, many do survive. What recovery looks like for them is more complicated. “That’s the other shoe to drop,” says William Greenough of Johns Hopkins. Older adults are likely to be weaker and to recover more slowly after a hospitalization, he says. With so many hospital gyms, rehab, and physical therapy facilities closed, that’s going to make their progress even more difficult.
None of these issues—loneliness, immunosenescence, difficulty recovering from hospital stays—are new problems, and none are unique to the virus. But the novel coronavirus exacerbates the many challenges older patients already face. “Covid-19 intensifies and complicates everything,” says Greenough.
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