We know the fundamental rules of social distancing at this point: stay home as much as possible, keep 6 feet of distance from other people, and wash your hands frequently. But what specifically should older people be thinking about as the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop?

OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni talked with Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, chief of geriatrics at Oregon Health and Science University and co-director of OHSU’s Health Aging Alliance.

Follow social distancing rules, wash your hands and ask for help

For the most part, washing hands is probably still one of the most important things that anyone and everyone should be doing, and that is definitely true for older adults as well.

What To Know About The New Coronavirus

The new coronavirus is spreading across the Pacific Northwest. Here some basic things to know:

• Coronavirus is more severe and more contagious than the flu. Take it seriously but don’t panic.
• The elderly and immune-compromised are most at-risk, but everyone can get sick.
• If you are sick stay home, self-quarantine and call your doctor.
• Practice social distancing. Avoid large gatherings, or small gatherings in tight spaces. At-risk people and people with underlying conditions should stay at home.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer is a backup option.
• Cough into a sleeve. Wash hands after coughing. Avoid touching your face.
• Sterilize things you touch often, like computers, phones, keys, and tablets.
• If you have prescriptions, call your doctor and ask for a 3-month supply in case of drug shortages.

More questions about the new coronavirus, answered


Eckstrom says social distancing, staying 6 feet away from others, not touching your face and really trying to avoid places where other people have been is very important. If you need to go out to the store, use hand sanitizer: take some with you, use it frequently through your trip, and get back home as soon as you can.

For adults older than 80, or who have chronic conditions like heart or lung disease: all of those factors put you at higher risk. If you can, ask for help and have other people take care of daily tasks like shopping or visiting the pharmacy.

Get outside and exercise

Getting out and going for a walk is absolutely OK. It’s probably one of the most important things you can do. Eckstrom strongly encourages people to keep up their exercise routines, even if they’re using a walker and what they can manage is going to their mailbox. Do it as many times a day as you can.

If you have to shop, use seniors-only hours

Shopping during these hours might be safer with fewer people in the store. Also, a variety of grocery stores have been offering seniors-only hours first thing in the morning. That’s when surfaces in the store should have been recently cleaned. If it’s possible to go during senior hours, and you don’t have anyone to do your grocery shopping for you, Eckstrom strongly encourages people to take advantage of that opportunity.

Find ways to overcome isolation 

Social isolation is a huge killer; it can be as bad as smoking cigarettes.

Eckstrom is afraid that many older adults are going to see their networks of social contacts narrow. She says it’s important to increase your social contacts while you’re not having face-to-face contact.

So, call people.

If you haven’t figured out social media in the past, this is the time to get your grandchild on the phone to show you how to set it up. Plenty of social media applications allow you to see people’s faces and communicate more realistically with friends and family.

Being flexible with changing routines is key

Learning to adapt is one of the most important components of healthy aging, whether it’s adjusting to a walker, a hearing aid, or changing your shopping routine. But Eckstrom says a lot of older adults have those skills deep in them: remember, many people in the older generation lived through World War II or the Great Depression. Dig deep and bring those skills to bear.

Have a plan for if you do get sick

Eckstrom recommends you think about this before you develop symptoms or know that you’ve contracted the virus.  For anyone over 80 or with heart and lung disease, the outcomes of a severe coronavirus infection are very bad.

“You know, your family might say we have to take you to the hospital. We have to put you on a ventilator. In reality, that may do very little good,” she said. “And a lot of the people who are placed on ventilators have to be on them for 10 to 20 days as they’re gradually brought through this viral illness.”

Eckstrom says even when people do survive, they’re often so debilitated that they lose significant physical function.

“I’ve told my older patients who are very frail and in their 80s or 90s, ‘If you are unlucky to enough to get a severe case of this disease, I would prefer to really work with you, try to keep you in your home and have early hospice that can come in.’”

She says it’s possible they’ll be able to help nurse you through it at home. But if it’s a severe case, they can at least help you die comfortably in your home—rather than dying on a ventilator in a hospital, seeing a doctor a couple times per day and totally isolated from family or friends.

Want to help? Reach out to your community

In-person volunteer activities for older adults are indeed quite reduced these days: They’re either shut down, or social distancing rules are preventing a lot of older adults from participating.

Eckstrom says it’s a matter of reaching out to friends and family by phone or online and keeping up these  connections. If you can still cook and drive, you can probably cook something lovely and drive it to the doorstep of a friend or family member who is more frail than you are.

At the end of the day, if you’re a grandchild, call your grandmother. If you’re a grandfather, call your grandkids. Eckstrom says this is a great time for families to really come together and connect.

Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”