I wish it were 2018. If this were last fall and I had known more about the flu vaccine for seniors, I would have done things differently. When my mom died unexpectedly on Christmas morning, the reasons why were unclear. What was 100% evident is that I thought of her as living for years to come. She was the master of her home. Vibrant. Feisty. Perhaps it was child-like denial, but I didn’t know how unwell she was. Sadly, I hadn’t yet researched the myriad of special solutions for seniors that can help maintain good health.
We bridged the physical distance between Vancouver and Nova Scotia speaking daily on the phone, and I had set up as many forms of assistance as I thought she needed. And yet I know I should have done more. Knew more. The past agonizing months have been spent learning about many health issues that are preventable for the older generation. For me, it is too late to get my mom back. But not for others. Hopefully, the information I share with you can help you make better care decisions for your elderly loved ones. And when I say elderly, I don’t mean octogenarians or my 100-year-old grandmother you will see below. We always envision our parents as young, and at 72 I thought my mom had many more years to thrive.
Giving Seniors the Best Chance
As parents, we pour through books about toddlers and newborns, learning how to give our little ones the best possible start in life. Sometimes we need a reminder that the other end of the spectrum in society needs applicable care as well. The elderly generation is just as critical and valuable to society and have needs as unique as our children.
“No one ever died of a cold,” said my mom, when I didn’t want to go to school as a little girl. But the flu is a very different matter and so much more than just a cold. Shockingly in Canada, an average of 3,500 people per year die of the flu. That statistic takes the air out of my lungs.
The 2019 Flu Season
This year’s flu season is projected to be on the “very difficult” edge of the range. And this is the piece of information that I wish I had known 12 months ago:
The standard flu vaccine is approximately 50% less effective in those over 65 than in younger healthy adults.
Did you know this? I had no idea. We do everything to keep loved ones safe – seatbelts and ski helmets and stability bars in the bathtub. But life often gets so busy we miss a few pieces of critical information that could help seniors live healthy lives. Don’t get me wrong – getting the standard flu shot is better than not getting vaccinated at all. It reduces the risk and severity of symptoms, and a person hospitalized for the flu is two to five times more likely to die if they didn’t get the vaccine, but for seniors it is not the most ideal.
We’ve all seen it, even in ourselves. As we age, the immune system becomes weaker and we need more sleep and cold-pressed juice to recover from illness. And back rubs, laundry assistance and gifts. (I’m going to make my husband read this). Due to weakening immune systems, adults 65 and older have lower responses to infections, greater susceptibility to the flu, and are at high risk for complications or hospitalization if they do get the flu. So, I repeat, because if there is anything you take away from this, remember: the standard flu vaccine is approximately 50% less effective in those over 65 than in younger healthy adults.
Loss of Independence
My mom wasn’t the healthiest person. She smoked, lacked exercise and her nutrition was questionable. The good ol’ Nova Scotia fried clams and double chocolate brownies should have been consumed a bit more sparingly. There was a slippery slope for her as she lost independence one shard at a time. Going from walking four blocks to one may have taken a few years, but the effects on her lifestyle were momentous. Cooking proper meals, theatre with friends, and tending to her beautiful gardens slowed at an almost imperceptible pace until most activity ceased.
But an unhealthy lifestyle isn’t the only thing that puts seniors at risk of losing their independence. The seasonal flu also puts seniors at risk. Over 8,000 Canadians 65 and older are hospitalized each year, and tragically, after a hospital stay from the flu, as many as one-third leave the hospital with a reduced ability to carry out their daily activities. This is huge.
For all of the amazing kids of elderly parents out there, this also means increased needs and extra caregiving. Phone calls from across the country won’t cut it. Prolonged stays in hospitals can lead to a ‘cascade of dependency’ where immobility leads to poor outcomes, that in some cases requires older patients to have additional rehabilitative care or to move to a long-term care home.
Tell Seniors About the Flu Vaccine
I don’t know how my mom died. I think it was her heart, but it really doesn’t matter. She made lifestyle choices that I couldn’t influence, but there were also steps I took to help. A caregiver came in to make some meals, I sent photos of the kids, and nagged her about follow-ups with her doctor. What I could have done, though, was be more knowledgeable about the specific needs of seniors and the flu vaccine. Perhaps it could have changed things. Maybe not. But sharing the knowledge so that we can reduce the 3,500 people who will perish with influenza, and the many seniors who will be hospitalized and lose so much independence afterward will hopefully make a difference.
National Seniors Day
Our seniors are as vital to the cycle of life and breadth of society as our newborns, and my mission this year is to care for and honour as many seniors as I can. This photo of my 99-year-old grandmother with Hudson has always been one of my all-time favourites. The wisdom in her eyes, the love between them and the beauty overwhelms me.