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The Flu and You: Over 65

My husband has the flu.

Every night I watched the news and learned about those people in those other states who were running to those big white tents filled with doctors and nurses to be checked out for the flu. That was in Kansas or California, not here in Florida. Then it hit Florida.

The news anchor detailed the tragedies of the ten year -old who went to school one day and was dead the next and the mother who was sent home from the hospital, only to die in her own bed. The young people dying are the sensational stories, not the old folk.

The flu and you

Yet, the data indicate that the people over 65, all across the nation, are the most vulnerable. Those are the people most likely to both become ill with the flu as well as die from it. But they don’t hit the headlines. That’s because old people die; they die all of the time. They aren’t in their high earning years, like those in the next younger group, and they aren’t the image of health and vitality, like the youth. So no one talks about their deaths. But those folk older than 65 are the folk who are dying from the flu every day.

I’m one of those prevention people with a fairly good immune system. I get the flu shot every year and have been lucky enough not to have succumbed to it in over 30 years. I had forgotten what it was like, even though I spent years on college campuses planning for flu epidemics, whether it was the bird or the swine, the H1N1 or some other strain. From the planning side, the focus is on education, prevention, isolation, treatment and logistics. The question: how do you keep hordes of students from infecting one another and missing finals, and if they do, then what?

The flu comes home

Those questions seem so very far away when the person with the flu is coughing in bed next to you. The concerns about 20 somethings managing getting to the health center and drinking enough fluids feel very different from worrying about your 80 year- old husband’s 102.2 temperature and his vacillating between not being able to sleep and not being able to keep his eyes open for more than 30 seconds..

The flu is scary. Again, the media lets you know that it can turn on a dime. Somehow, the virus seems to attack other body parts; what felt like just a bad cold, now feels unbeatable.

The “what if” flu fear

I think the hard part about the flu is not just the in your face symptoms of a bad cough and a high fever, dizziness and tiredness, and aches and nausea, all bad enough in their own right. What makes the flu so difficult when you are over 65 is the fear. Where will the flu land? Might I get pneumonia, or might it attack the heart? Could I get sepsis? How serious is this or am I over-reacting?

As with so many challenges in life, especially those that we confront as we age, all we can do is focus on what is, what we know and what we can actually do something about. We can take the meds as prescribed and drink lots of fluids. We can rest and stay away from others. And, we can give ourselves permission to acknowledge that if some symptom seems out of line, we need to ask for help.

The stereotype of older folk is that they are complainers, that they note every symptom and jump to list their multiple miseries to whomever, at the slightest provocation. “Oh, my aching – “ -you fill in the blank-- is the refrain so often associated with older people. Trying to overcome that stereotype can be a recipe for disaster with something like the flu. NOT complaining when something doesn’t feel right can be the avenue to not getting the necessary help in a timely fashion. Both “timely” and “help” are the operative words in this case. Reaching out to a doctor when symptoms come on strong or strange can be imperative to staying alive and well.

So here are my thoughts:

  1. Acknowledge that you are sick. Go to the doctor, get meds, and have someone available to take care of you.

  2. Follow the doctor’s orders, whatever that may be: rest, drink fluids, wear a mask. Stay away from others.

  3. Focus on taking care of yourself and not on worrying about the worst -case scenario.

  4. Note if you are feeling worse, if something just doesn’t feel right, or if you get sick after feeling better. Get help right away. The flu is sneaky.

  5. Give yourself time to get better. Enjoy the leisure and watch lots of movies.

This too will pass. When you watch the TV news and hear about the numbers of people with the flu across the nation, you can proudly say, “I’m part of those stats. I had it and survived it!” As a number or a name, your fight to overcome the flu, is well worth recognizing. Not a recognition that you might choose to own, but one worth applauding all the same!

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