“It just gets into my head – is it better not to go because you don’t know if you are bringing germs?”
Caroline, from south-east England, is one of many people who are concerned about visiting elderly relatives in the midst of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak.
Until now Caroline, who has asked us not to use her surname, has been visiting her sister, who is living with dementia and in a care home. But now she says she is “not sure” whether she should continue her visits in case she spreads the virus inadvertently.
Older people are more likely to become severely ill if they catch it, the NHS says. Generally, it says anyone over the age of 65 is considered an “older person” but there is no strict definition as people age at different rates.
But what measures are being taken and what advice is there for looking after older and elderly people?
What are care homes doing?
Care homes have responded in a mix of ways so far, with some residential and nursing homes deciding to restrict visitors.
Barchester Care Homes, which has more than 11,000 residents spread across more than 200 homes in the UK, is asking family members and friends to “minimise” their visits.
In a letter to residents and visitors, it says it has not taken the decision lightly and appreciates it may cause some discomfort. But “this is a necessary step to take”, it adds
Relatives must speak to the manager at the care home before making any visit, the letter added.
Elsewhere, St Augustine’s Court Care Home in Nottingham is also requesting people to avoid visiting.
“Where visiting is essential, we would ask for only one visitor per resident, please,” the home’s administrator said, adding that hand gel should be used and phone calls are still welcome.
Ryan Moring, manager of The Haven care home in Colchester, said the home has not yet shut its doors to visitors but it is taking “precautionary measures”.
“At the moment, every visitor who enters the building we insist they wash and sanitise their hands. If they don’t wish to do that we don’t let them come in.
“We have restricted visitors from outside entertainment, singers, exercise classes because those people visit numerous care homes.”
He stressed contact is “very important” for dementia patients in the home, but they have contingency plans in place for if the virus spreads, with facilities to use Skype.
Caroline, who is debating whether to continue visiting her sister, says there has been a “deafening silence” about the virus at her care home.
She says there is a “whole community of people who are vulnerable”, adding that her sister “tends to want to hold my hand; I do wash my hands”.
What about visiting older people in their own homes?
As yet, the government has not issued any advice suggesting older people should be kept away from the wider population.
But some people have taken the decision not to see older relatives.
Columnist Lucy Mangan told the BBC’s Emma Barnett Show she felt “quite upset” after reaching an agreement with her parents she will not be visiting them for the forseeable future.
“I’ve never lived through a pandemic before. It’s all new and it feels really weird and horrible.
“We’re all reaching that critical point now where we have to take stock and go, if I go to my parents I could be carrying something that could kill them. That’s the reality of it.”
Mark Storey, the head of Sheffield Churches Council for Community Care, says they are continuing to run their services – which involves visiting older people at home to prevent loneliness and also helping with hospital discharges.
“We are open as usual,” he says. “We do have a Covid-19 plan in place in case we are impacted.”
“Whilst we are not panicking and not shouting from the rooftops, we have got to take a responsibility,” he says. “Every one of us has got a duty of care.
“Our message is we are continuing to be open. Everything is under review all the time.”
He says contact for older people is “vital”, and although face-to-face visits are best, they could be replaced by phone calls if there is a risk of spreading the virus.
Anna Lawless, 70, who lives in sheltered accommodation in Surrey, says she is “uncertain” whether it would be a good idea to stop visiting older people, saying it would “cause a great deal of stress”.
She told BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that the attitude among residents in her accommodation block was “if I get it, I get it, there’s nothing I can do about it”.
What else can we do?
Simon Hewett-Avison, from charity Independent Age, says families do need to make sure elderly people have the supplies they need such as food and medication – but urged a “balanced approach” rather than panicked stockpiling.
He warned the virus could increase the risk of isolating people further.
“We have seen elderly people are quite concerned about this. I was talking to a lady last week in Teesside. She was constantly looking at the news and was really concerned.”
He added: “We are keen to encourage people to see this as an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends that we have fallen out of contact with and check in with them.”
He added that four million over-65s live alone in the UK, and much of the advice often relies on older people having a support network.
He said his charity could look at more focus on telephone contact, as well as helping with practical things like food shopping delivery.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, also recommends that people with elderly friends and relatives make sure they check on them regularly. “If you have any concerns about their health or need more information about coronavirus call NHS 111 or visit the NHS website,” she said.
Age UK’s online advice adds: “The government hasn’t said we should stop going out or meeting up with other people.
“Most people can keep doing what they normally do as long as they don’t have symptoms and maintain good hygiene practices like washing their hands regularly. You only need to stay at home and avoid contact with other people (called ‘self-isolating’) if you’ve been advised to by NHS 111 or a medical professional.”
Older people and their families can also call Age UK Advice for free on 0800 169 65 65.