10 Risks & Tips for Keeping Seniors Healthy and Safe in Winter Weather
Cold and snowy winter weather can cause health and safety concerns for seniors and their caregivers. If you worry about your loved one being alone, homebound or going out in the cold, here are 10 risks family members and home health aides should watch out for, and related tips for prevention.
- Falls outdoors. Many seniors have difficulty walking due to arthritis, results of a stroke or other illnesses. A single fall can cause a life-threatening injury. To help avoid falls, seniors should wear appropriate shoes outdoors. Make surfaces less slippery by putting road salt, sand or kitty litter on sidewalks and driveways. Whenever possible, get help with chores that involve being outdoors.
- Hypothermia. An elderly person who goes outside in winter without proper clothing can quickly fall victim to frostbite or hypothermia (body temperature below 95 degrees [35° C] and can’t produce enough energy to stay warm.) Inadequate indoor heat also can cause hypothermia. Keep home temperatures above 65 degrees and dress the person in layers. Do not rely on shivering alone as a warning sign, since seniors tend to shiver less or not at all as their body temperature drops. Call 911 if you think someone has hypothermia.
- Frostbite can cause damage to the skin and even to the bone. It usually affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes, and can even result in loss of limbs. Seniors with heart disease and other circulation problems are especially at risk. Prevention includes covering up all parts of the body when going outside. If skin turns red, dark or starts to hurt, go inside right away. If frostbite occurs, place frostbitten parts of the body in warm (not hot) water, and call for medical help.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning. If your loved one’s home is heated with a fireplace, gas furnace or gas-powered space heater, invest in carbon monoxide detectors. They can be purchased at a home improvement store for as little as $30. Carbon monoxide in the air can displace the oxygen in the blood stream and cause headache, dizziness, nausea, convulsions and even death within two hours. The effects can be even faster for people with heart or respiratory illnesses.
- High blood pressure and heart attacks. Cold weather causes blood vessels to constrict, which increases the risk of heart attack for people with heart disease or other conditions that strain the heart’s ability to pump blood. The heart has to work harder to maintain body heat, while falling temperatures may cause an unhealthy rise in high blood pressure, especially in seniors. This is another reason to keep the elderly inside and warm.
- Influenza can more easily result in pneumonia in seniors. Flu and pneumonia vaccines, while not 100% effective in preventing those illnesses, can reduce the severity of the symptoms and protect against complications. Vaccines are strongly recommended for persons 65+ years old and those who suffer from chronic health problems such as heart disease, respiratory problems, renal disease, diabetes, anemia, or any disease that weakens the body’s immune system. Because the influenza vaccine is only effective for one year and viruses vary annually, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year. It takes about two weeks to develop full immunity.
- Painful joints. While many people with arthritis say their joints become more painful and stiff when the weather changes, there is no evidence that cold weather causes joint damage. Mild daily exercise can help. For example, indoor swimming is easy on the joints. Staying indoors doesn’t have to mean being inactive. Keep your senior in shape by walking in place, using a stationary bike or working out with a fitness video. Daily stretching exercises can help maintain flexibility. Check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.
- Vitamin D deficiency. Being indoors and out of the sun most of the time eliminates a source of vitamin D. Encourage eating foods high in Vitamin D, such as milk, grains and seafood, or ask your doctor about a vitamin D supplement.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) & depression. A lack of natural light can cause depression in both young and old alike. As the elderly are more likely to stay indoors, keep lights on, open curtains and blinds to let in natural light, and encourage the person to sit close to a window. The winter months and bad weather also can lead to social isolation. Help your senior to spend more time with family, friends and neighbors, and when weather makes visiting difficult, call them for a chat.
- Dry skin. Heated air can be drying. Because dry skin can lead to other skin complications especially in diabetics, it’s important to monitor carefully. Shower with warm, not hot water. Limit showers to 5-10 minutes. Gently pat skin dry. Use a gentle cleanser and a thicker moisturizer that will help skin retain its moisture. Run a cool mist humidifier in the bedroom.
Winter poses challenges for seniors, but with awareness and planning, they can stay healthy and be ready for spring. Dakota Travel Nurse Home Care can help aging adults maintain health and independence by providing companionship, meal preparation and personal care. For more information, call 701.663.5373.