How Seniors Can Protect Themselves From Kids' Colds

Is there any way to stop the little ones from sharing their viruses?

Teaching young kids to share is important, but grandparents wish they’d keep their germs to themselves. When school-aged children with working parents get sick, guess who’s often called to active duty as caretakers? And when they’re exposed to the flu, rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, stomach bugs, etc., grandparents are likely to get sick—sometimes much more so than anyone else in the family.

“They’re usually not as micro-immunized as the parents,” says Dr. Judith Turow of Nemours duPont Pediatrics, Lankenau. “Kids are around their parents all the time, so they’re receiving little bits of the illness as it develops. But if grandparents come into the picture when the kid is already sick, they get a big bolus of the full-blown virus.”

And older adults usually have preexisting conditions and a weakened immune system. “Get 6-year-olds sick, and they’ll be OK within a week or so,” Turow says. “Get 65-year-olds sick, and they could be ill for weeks.”

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Shielding older adults from sick kids—and their parents—is an ongoing campaign for Lynn Plasha, vice president of health services at Media’s Martins Run retirement community. Come flu season, Plasha even posts signs asking residents to postpone visits from sick family members. Many of the residents prefer having Martins Run to blame, and Plasha has no problem being a scapegoat. “People really underestimate just how sick the elderly can get from the flu and other viruses and infections that younger people see as merely an inconvenience,” she says.

Other weapons in Plasha’s arsenal are flu shots for everyone (including staff) and vaccines for shingles, pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23). The “pneumos”—as they’re called—are also given to kids under 5. They’re used to battle pneumococcal bacteremia, of which there are about 50,000 cases annually, and pneumococcal pneumonia, which causes some 175,000 hospitalizations every year.

Then there’s hand washing, which most of us do incorrectly. Plasha’s nurses apply three coatings of Purell, and then wash their hands with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Turow’s method: wash with soap and water, dry completely, then apply moisturizer.

“Many people don’t thoroughly dry their hands, which leaves them damp and provides an attractive landing spot for germs,” she says. “Using moisturizer creates a protective barrier for the hands, which may have cracks from dry skin, especially in the winter and especially in older adults. Cracked or chipped nails—and artificial nails—are a big breeding ground for germs, especially if the hands they’re on are near the mouth and nose.”

When around sick people, Turow adds alcohol-based soaps to the regimen because they do an extra good job of killing germs. That’s especially true if an illness results in a child vomiting or having diarrhea. “Also wash your hair, your clothes and your eyeglasses,” Turow says. “People forget about protecting their eyes. But the eyes have mucus membranes just like the nose and mouth, and infections can run rampant if they get in there.”

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Of course, the best prevention is to not be around sick children at all. But how can grandparents turn down requests for babysitting help in times of real need? Negotiating that dynamic is the expertise of Hope Nichols, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Before she established her practice in Chester Springs, Nichols spent five years working as a therapist at a geriatric community. “The family system is like a mobile that hangs over a baby’s crib,” says Nichols. “If you pull on one string, the whole thing falls apart.”

Even so, personal boundaries are a must. “Love can’t exist without them—even with your children,” Nichols says. “It’s what you will and will not allow in your life, including in your relationships.”

But many grandparents struggle to install those boundaries. “There’s often an innate feeling that they have a duty to put their grandchildren first, above their own well-being,” says Nichols. “There may be fear that saying no will damage the relationship with the grandchildren and their parents.”

That fear can morph into anger if grandparents feel continually put upon. Instead, Nichols suggests operating with kindness, which is more easily done when planning in advance. All grandkids will get sick. So, Nichols recommends that grandparents create a personal bill of rights. “There should be no guilt about it,” advises Nichols. “Boundaries are not meant to punish the other person.”

And when it comes right down to it, the onus is on the parents. “It’s really incumbent upon the adult children to not put grandparents into situations where their health may be compromised,” says Turow. “They underestimate the danger, and they underestimate the responsibility grandparents feel to help.”

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Simply put, the adult child has to be more of an adult than a child. “They can’t keep asking for their parents’ help,” Turow says. “They have to find solutions that work for the entire family.”

If not, there’s always Florida.

Family Flu Survival Guide

Source: Crozer-Keystone Health System

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