November 12, 2019

That chill in the air can only mean one thing: Winter is almost here! As the temperature drops in the winter months, we all need to take precautions to stay safe and healthy. Older adults, in particular, face a higher risk of injuries and health problems in the freezing weather, such as slips and falls, hypothermia, and frostbite. Fortunately, older adults can steer clear of these cold-weather concerns by taking simple preventive steps.

Stay safe this winter with these cold-weather reminders for older adults:

Bundle up to prevent hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature gets extremely low. It is particularly dangerous for older adults, who tend to lose body heat much faster than when they were young. We often think of hypothermia as only occurring after someone is outside in the cold weather, but the condition can even happen indoors if the temperature is too low.

To help prevent hypothermia, dress in layers and wear a hat, gloves, and scarf when going outdoors in cold or freezing weather. Avoid staying out in the cold for long periods of time. Be sure the heat in your home is set to at least 68-70°F and dress warmly on cold weather days, even if you’re staying indoors.

Watch out for these signs of hypothermia:

  • Cold hands and feet
  • Poor balance
  • Puffy or swollen face
  • Pale skin
  • Shivering
  • Slower than normal speech, or slurred speech
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Acting confused or irritable
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Slow or shallow breathing

If you think someone is showing signs of hypothermia, call 911 right away and wrap them in a warm blanket until help arrives.

Choose appropriate shoes

During the winter months, ice, slush, and snow can make it easy to slip and fall. For older adults, these falls often lead to injuries such as bruises and lacerations, sprains, fractures, and head injuries. In fact, falls are the number one cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults. To help prevent falls and slips in the winter, always wear appropriate footwear for the weather. If you’re going to walk on potentially icy or snowy surfaces, wear boots with non-skid soles. Ideally, only use walkways that are clear of snow and treated with melting salt.

Avoid snow shoveling hazards

For older adults, shoveling driveway or sidewalk snow can be highly unsafe. This is because shoveling snow is a high-intensity exercise that can lead to overexertion and even trigger cardiac events. To avoid the risk of injury, it’s better to ask for help from a younger neighbor or hire a snow shoveling service. One benefit of downsizing to a retirement community is that tasks like snow shoveling and lawn care are handled by an on-site maintenance team, so residents never have to worry about tending to their own driveways or sidewalks! 

Use caution with space heaters or electric blankets

Personal heat sources like space heaters and electric blankets might seem like an efficient way to stay warm in the winter, but these devices come with their share of hazards. Space heaters can pose a fire risk, especially if they are accidentally left unattended. Likewise, electric blankets or heating pads may lead to burns, especially for older adults who might have trouble sensing when they become overheated. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, heating pads and electric blankets cause almost 500 fires each year. It’s just not worth the risk; raise the temperature in your home, use blankets, and dress in warm layers instead of using personal heating appliances.

Combat colds and the flu

While you can catch a cold at any time of the year, cold viruses tend to peak in the fall and winter months. Likewise, flu season runs from November through March. For some, these viruses are merely an inconvenience, but for older adults, they can be highly dangerous. Older adults have weaker immune systems than when they were younger, making it difficult to fight airborne viruses. In some cases, the flu can turn into a more serious condition that requires hospitalization, such as pneumonia. To help prevent cold and flu viruses, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. You may also consider getting a flu vaccine if your doctor recommends it.

Stock up for snow days

Older adults who live alone should take extra steps to prepare their homes for winter, including the potential of weather-related emergencies. Before the first major snowstorm hits, it’s a good idea to stock up on supplies like milk, bread, eggs, water, non-perishable and canned food, batteries, flashlights, portable cell phone chargers, and first aid items. Be sure you stay on schedule with prescription refills in case you are trapped indoors for a few days. Finally, keep a list of numbers to call in case of an emergency next to the phone or on the refrigerator.

Peace of mind is priceless

These winter safety tips are important for anyone, but they are especially important for older adults living on their own. If you’re concerned about your parent or loved one at home alone during the winter months, it might be time to suggest retirement community living. After moving to a retirement community, older adults no longer have to worry about the daily upkeep that living alone requires. This gives them more time to make new friends and explore fun activities and hobbies. Best of all, older adults and their families can rest assured knowing that help is always available if needed from the community’s dedicated care staff and on-site nurses.