COVID-19 and elderly people

Advice from Age International on helping elderly people cope with the coronavirus crisis (published 24 March 2020)

Covid-19 is rapidly spreading globally and older people are at the highest risk from the virus.

Age UK is supporting older people in the UK and Age International is working to reach those in high-risk areas in lower-income countries.
Here we share information on what coronavirus is and the steps to take to stop it spreading.

What is Covid-19

Covid-19 or ‘coronavirus’ is a new disease that emerged last year (2019).  It was first seen in China but is spreading all over the world, with cases now in well over 100 countries.

The virus causes respiratory infection with the most common symptoms being a dry cough and shortage of breath. Some people may have aches and pains, a runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea.

Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don’t feel unwell. They can however, still pass the virus onto others so precautions should be taken to stop the spread.

How does Covid-19 spread?

The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth. These are spread when a person with the virus coughs or sneezes.

People can catch covid-19 if:

  • Someone with the virus coughs or sneezes and droplets land on objects and surfaces. If other people touch those surfaces and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes, they can become infected.
  • Someone with the virus coughs or sneezes on to another person who breathes in the droplets.
  • Someone with the virus coughs or sneezes into their hand and then touches another person on the face, or touches another person’s hand, and then they touch their mouth, nose or eyes

Risks to older people

Most people (about 80%) recover from COVID-19 without needing special treatment, however around 1 in 6 people will become more seriously unwell and will develop difficulty breathing.

Older people, and those with underlying health problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to become seriously unwell with COVID-19, and are therefore unlikely to survive. 

How can I protect myself?

There are some basic things that you can do to reduce your risk of catching COVID-19:

  • Regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, including the palms and backs of your hands, between your fingers, your fingers, fingertips and your nails.
  • If you are out, or do not have access to soap and water, use alcohol-based hand rub to clean your hands. This must also be done for at least 20 seconds with enough rub for your hands to stay wet for the whole 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, particularly if you have not washed your hands.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue. Throw the tissue away immediately. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow. Then, immediately wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Stay at least 2 metres (6 feet) away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Stay at home or away from other people if you feel unwell with a fever, cough or shortness of breath.

Specific health risks

Older people and those with other health conditions, particularly hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to become more seriously ill with Covid-19. It is important that you take care of your general health, including any specific conditions you already have.

If you have any existing conditions, it is particularly important to do everything you can to reduce your risk of getting Covid-19 – take a look at our advice above on protecting yourself from the virus.

Even if you are unwell, continue to take medication you have been given by a doctor for other illnesses or health issues. Make sure that you have enough of your medicines, and if you are unwell ask a friend, family member or carer to collect medicines for you.


People with diabetes are at increased risk. If you have diabetes, continue to take any medication, monitor your blood sugar closely and seek medical help if you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath


People with asthma should continue to use their inhaler(s) as usual. If you think your asthma is getting worse or you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, seek medical help.


People with cancer are at increased risk, particularly cancers that affect the immune system, and people who are undergoing treatment, including chemotherapy. If you feel unwell with a fever, cough or shortness of breath, seek medical help.

Getting support

If you need to stay at home, or you are homebound, ask friends, family or carers for support. Both you, and those helping you, should do what you can to protect yourselves, as outlined above, including washing your hands.

Ask friends, family or carers for help with picking up medicines, buying food, tasks around the house, getting up-to-date information on Covid-19 and how to access medical help if necessary.

If you start to feel unwell make sure that friends, family or carers know and ask them not to visit, especially if you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, until you have got some medical advice, unless you need their help urgently. Additionally, ask them not to visit you if they feel unwell, particularly with a fever, cough or shortness of breath.

For further information and guidance in the UK please visit Age UK. To find out more about the global context, please visit the World Health Organisation (WHO)

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