There seems to be a cliché for everything, so we’ll start with this go-to for COVID: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
In fact, our scientists/pathfinders cannot tell us how far we may have to go to truly be “out of the woods.” If the “woods” is the COVID Pandemic, the patch of woods many are now in is the “long COVID woods.” Public health professionals are telling us that approximately one in five individuals who do become infected with COVID will also have the added journey of long COVID…and it’s more common in our older loved ones that younger people who become infected.
If you have an older loved one who has been infected with COVID – and hopefully been vaccinated – be on the lookout for lingering symptoms. It gets a bit complicated, because many of the long COVID symptoms are similar to those that older adults with heart disease, lung disease or cognitive impairment may be manifesting already. These include difficulty with memory or conversation, tiredness, muscle and bone pain, shortness of breath or heart racing and more. If you don’t seek out attention from their medical providers, you may not recognize the underlying causes of such symptoms in order to treat them effectively. And here’s is the real catch, there is no real test for “long COVID,” and there really is not much consensus for clinical treatment either.
First, seek the advice of their medical provider, but be prepared to ask for a referral to a specialist or in some areas, a referral to a long COVID clinic. There are about 66 health systems across the U.S. that have put together interdisciplinary teams to tackle the complexities of long COVID. Go on-line if you have to get access to those clinicians who can really help.
Second, be prepared to ask a lot of questions as you call on clinics or providers. It can help to go to the web site of a “long COVID clinic,” so check out what these clinics say about the condition on-line. The University of Southern California may not be in your backyard, but read what they do so you can be conversant in what to expect and what to ask.
Third, get a plan for what can be done at a clinic as well as at home. After a clinician determines that it likely is long COVID, they can help you form a plan around restoring your older loved one to full “pre-COVID health.” Also, Google “activities of daily living” for the list of deficits that may need some work to get fully back from COVID. But go slow. Older adults lose endurance rather quickly with the “deconditioning” that comes from COVID, so it may take some time to get back to “normal.” Start low, go slow. Don’t start with long walks; start with very short walks. Don’t start with pressing weights or even push-ups; start with resistance bands to build back lost muscle mass and tone. A physical therapist may be a great help in developing a training program.
Fourth, be a cheerleader, not a coach. Encourage your older loved one to be persistent but also have the patience for the time it will take to fully recover. Cheer their successes. Older adults will simply take longer than they may have a couple decades younger to recover the muscle tone and strength that has been lost. Help them pace themselves and reward themselves for small steps toward goal. Otherwise, you may have a setback on top of long COVID. Remember that social isolation and depression are some of the challenges all older adults face, so help them to find a positive path to physical and mental health. And be patient also…long COVID is called “long” because it can stay around for a lot longer than anyone will want.
Charlotte Bishop is a Caregiver Coach, an Aging Life Care Advisor, a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.