Seniors: Your COVID-19 Questions Answered


The UCLA Longevity Center recently asked seniors what questions they had about COVID-19. The request came before a Longevity Center webinar titled “Resilience in the Age of COVID-19: Webinar with Dr. Gary Small and Dr. Helen Lavretsky.”

Below, Dr. Small, MD, PhD, the Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the UCLA Longevity Center, provides answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Are we really going to have to wait for a treatment of some sort or a vaccine before we can have more normal social gatherings with friends?

That question speaks to the uncertainty we are all facing right now and how difficult that is. What we’re hearing from health officials is that even if there is a treatment or there is a vaccine, it may not be 100 percent effective. What we have to do is adjust to this continued uncertainty. It also speaks to the topic of resilience and being able to adapt and bounce back from such uncertainty and the psychological adversity associated with it. People are already beginning to create a new normal for social gatherings – their friends come over and they socialize six feet apart while wearing masks. As we learn more about the virus and how it spreads, we can begin to ease back to more relaxed social gatherings, but that will happen sometime in the future.

At what point is it safe to get together with family and friends in a more informal, closer social setting than standing six feet away from everyone with masks on?

This is a big question that many people are asking, and any response has to do with individual risk tolerance. We know that all of us of a certain age are at a higher risk. And when in doubt, I think it is best to be conservative, which will lead to less worry about viral exposure. I have had experiences with patients, friends and family members who get too lax and regret it after the fact. It’s always best to stay informed about true risks, listen to reliable public health experts and try to be reasonable and resilient.

Obviously, the unemployment situation is very bad. Realistically, should seniors expect to go to the back of the line for new job openings given their statistical risk of catching the virus? I’m assuming that employers may implicitly favor younger, less experienced workers in order to reduce some perceived increased risk to the workplace. In other words, should seniors be ready for employers to have an additional excuse to discriminate against them in hiring?

A lot of people have been talking about a reemergence of ageism, which is prejudice against older people. And it’s not just agism, but prejudice against anyone with an illness like cancer or diabetes that increases their risk for more serious illness if infected. Uncertainty and fear fuel these prejudices, and I think we have to steel ourselves against them. I think the way to overcome that prejudice is through reason and by trying to educate potential employers about an older person’s value in the workforce because of their greater experience and knowledge base.

I am a senior currently quarantining with a younger family member. We have been following all guidelines carefully. Eventually, he will be returning to his workplace and therefore bringing the "outside world" into our home. How do I, as a senior, continue to protect myself from possible exposure through him?

As a senior, you have a greater risk for health problems due to the virus so, depending on your risk tolerance, you may want to ask this younger family member to live elsewhere. Alternatively, you can work out a system of being more vigilant within the household, where you live in different parts of the house and wear masks when you’re in the same room, constantly wipe down surfaces and so forth. We are seeing such compromises as businesses start opening up. For example, restaurants are moving to one-quarter capacity, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and waiters and waitresses wearing masks.

How safe is it for seniors currently in lockdown to go to dental or medical appointments?

Many people have put off seeing their doctor for non-urgent care. Many vulnerable people need our care and are frightened to come in. With dentists, it is reassuring that even prior to the pandemic, they were quite fastidious about limiting infections. Whenever I go to the dentist or I get my teeth cleaned, they’re wearing masks and have been doing that for years and they’re very careful. Any health system, like UCLA Health, is very vigilant about these issues and is taking reasonable measures to protect patients and employees by taking temperatures and asking questions about risk levels prior to any visit. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor or dentist, and make sure that they’re following safe practices.