For many, winter is the most challenging of the four seasons. It shortens daylight hours, affects mood and dictates how people dress. Its snow, ice, and cold often force us inside and determine when, where and how we drive.
Winter is a particularly challenging season for senior adults. However, there are winter safety tips for older adults that can help make sure they stay safe and healthy this season.
Preventing Senior Falls
Icy steps and walkways are a hazard for anyone, but especially seniors, who may suffer serious injuries and broken bones if they fall. Be sure to salt stairs and walkways before a winter storm to keep anyone from slipping.
Salting beforehand can also make shoveling snow much easier for seniors. However, keep in mind that shoveling snow can also put a strain on the heart, endangering people with heart disease and circulatory problems. It is also hazardous for those who have balance issues.
Seniors can avoid the dangers of shoveling snow by using alternative products. Chemicals can help melt ice as well, but be aware that surfaces can refreeze. Consumer Reports has some information about which ice melting products are the safest and most effective, as well as how to use them.
If seniors have to go out, they should wear non-skid soles and make sure that the rubber tips on their canes have been replaced if they have worn smooth.
If there is any doubt about walking conditions, seniors should remain inside if at all possible.
As the body ages, it is less resistant to the effects of the cold. It also becomes more difficult for seniors to tell when they are dangerously cold. Shivering is not a reliable warning because older adults tend to shiver less or not at all when their body temperature drops.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature becomes very low. Most people associate it with the bitter cold of the outdoors, but a cold house or apartment can also result in hypothermia. Seniors and older adults should keep the house temperature at a minimum of 68 degrees to prevent hypothermia.
Senior home safety is twice as important during the winter. If a senior has a fireplace at their home, make sure it has been properly ventilated and cleaned. Chimneys and flues should be checked annually. The home should have a working carbon monoxide detector.
Winter safety tips for older adults include:
- Dressing warmly on cold days, even indoors.
- Dressing in layers when going out. A few thin layers are better than one heavy one.
- Wearing a good coat, a hat that covers your ears, gloves, boots and a scarf to cover your mouth and nose are essentials to maintaining a healthy body temperature.
- Stretching, moving about the house or exercising every hour or so will keep your circulation moving.
- Keeping an eye on the weather forecast, particularly the wind chill. For example, when it is 35 degrees with 5 mph winds the temperature actually feels like 31 degrees. With 10 mph winds at the same temperature, it feels like 27. Consider this when dressing to go out.
- Watching what you put inside your body is just as important. Drink alcohol moderately, as it can cause a loss of body heat. Eat enough food during to stay energized and insulated with little body fat.
Defeat Wintertime Depression
During the winter, many seniors have less contact with others, which can trigger feelings of loneliness and isolation. Family members and caregivers should visit and check on their senior loved ones more frequently during the winter. It’s also a good idea to arrange a check-in system with neighbors and friends if family isn’t close by. Even a simple phone call can make a big difference.
With winter’s decreased sunlight, some seniors may suffer from “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD. Strategies to cope with SAD include opening curtains and blinds to let in natural light and using full-spectrum light bulbs in the home that mimic sunlight.
Seniors living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia sometimes suffer from Sundowners Syndrome, which is marked by increased agitation, anger, confusion and memory loss during low-light conditions. Maintaining a regular schedule has proven to lessen the impact of the loss of light. If a senior’s confusion or depression persists or deepens, consult a physician.
Prepare for Power Outages
Along with ice and snow, winter also produces more than its share of power outages. Seniors should keep a flashlight nearby with fresh batteries and a battery-powered radio – and know how to use them.
To stay safe and prepared this winter, older adults can:
- Be sure their home is adequately insulated
- Wrap exposed pipes with insulations
- Store spare containers of water, particularly if your home is on a well pump system
- Know how to shut off water valves to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting
- Keep non-perishable food on hand in case of emergency
Seniors and Winter Driving
Seniors should avoid driving on icy roads if at all possible. If you must drive, check the weather and road condition reports before deciding to drive. The state department of transportation provides online updates of road conditions. Before leaving the house, older adults should let someone know where they are going, the route they are taking and when they expect to return.
When driving in winter, be extra cautious on bridges and overpasses, as they are the first to freeze. Remember that major roads are usually cleared before secondary roads and side streets.
Before the bad weather arrives, a senior can make sure their car is winterized. This will include checking antifreeze levels, tire pressure, windshield wipers and windshield wiper fluid.
The car should be stocked with emergency supplies including the following:
- First aid kit
- Warm clothes
- Windshield scraper
- Rock salt, sand or cat litter for tire traction
- Drinking water
- Dried food
- Booster cables
Stay safe this winter! Read more of Bethesda’s safety tips for older adults to stay out of harm’s way all year.