As we age, our lives grow richer with knowledge and experience - and, sometimes, with unexpected responsibilities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in 14 U.S. children live in a home headed by a grandparent, a 15 percent increase over the past decade. With the growing diversity of the modern family - from working single parents to two-career households, or in some cases, multi-generational homes - many older people find themselves reliving their parenting experiences all over again as their children rely on them for childcare. Most derive great joy from this role redux, but the added financial, housing and education challenges can take a serious toll on the health of the grandparent.
According to the AARP, nearly 7.8 million children in the United States are living in homes where grandparents or other relatives are the heads of the household, and more than 2.5 million grandparents are shouldering the sole responsibility of raising these children. Doting grandparents are awesome caregivers, but with age comes a greater risk for infection and vulnerability during cold and flu season. This risk skyrockets with kids who bring home germs from school and the playground.
Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it is difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. That's one reason why it's a smart idea to get your flu vaccination to keep yourself strong and healthy. Flu vaccines are especially important for seniors, because resistance to infections decreases, increasing the risk for complications from the flu. It's estimated that up to 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur among people 65 years and older, while 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in that same age group.
Although the flu season varies from year to year, it generally peaks between December and March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year by the end of October, but getting it later is better than never. Just keep in mind that it takes about two weeks for immunity to set in. Here are some steps you can take to fend off the flu this season.
- Get your flu shot. This season, the CDC recommends only the use of injectable flu shots. The nasal flu vaccine (brand name FluMist) is no longer recommended because of concerns about its effectiveness the last few flu seasons. According to the CDC, this year's vaccine has been updated to better match circulating viruses. Among the available options, there are two designed specifically for seniors 65 and older:
- The "high-dose" shot (brand name Fluzone High-Dose) has been approved for use in the United States for people 65 and older since 2009. It contains four times the amount of the component that stimulates the body to build immunity as the regular flu shot and is associated with a stronger and better immune response. Clinical trials have shown that adults 65 years and older who received the high-dose vaccine had 24 percent fewer influenza infections than those who received the standard dose.
- The "adjuvant" shot (brand name Fluad) will be available for the first time in the United States this year for people 65 and older. An adjuvant is an ingredient added to a vaccine to create a stronger immune response. A Canadian study of 282 people aged 65 years and older conducted found that Fluad was 63 percent more effective than regular-dose flu shots without the added ingredient.
- Check with your doctor for alternative precautions if you are allergic to eggs. This year, recommendations for vaccination of people with egg allergies have changed. People who have experienced only hives after exposure to eggs can now get any licensed flu vaccine that is appropriate for their age and health. Those who have more severe symptoms can get the same vaccines but the vaccine must be given in a medical setting and be supervised by a health care provider.
- Practice good health habits. Cover your cough or sneeze, wash your hands often, and avoid close contact with people who are sick. And, of course, get plenty of sleep, manage your stress and eat nutritious food.
- If you are 65 or older, seek treatment quickly if you develop flu symptoms. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. People at high risk for flu complications should get antiviral drugs to prevent serious health problems. Antiviral treatment is best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick, but can still be helpful when given later.
- Inquire about pneumonia vaccines. Pneumococcal pneumonia is an example of a serious flu-related complication that can cause death. Symptoms include fever and chills, cough, rapid breathing or difficulty breathing, chest pain, and-among older adults-confusion or low alertness.
Dr. John Kim is chief medical officer at Alignment Health Plan, a Medicare Advantage plan from Alignment Healthcare. Based in Orange County, California, Alignment works with diverse communities to promote health and wellness for its members. For more information, please visit www.alignmenthealthplan.com.