3 Winter Safety Risks Seniors Need to Watch For
After a fairly easy start, winter is finally here with a vengeance: In the past two weeks we’ve seen 2 feet or more of snow. At the same time, however, temperatures have seesawed from the low teens to the mid-50s. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t like the New England weather, wait a few minutes. It will change.”
These varying weather conditions – and winter in general – can be a tough time for seniors for a number of reasons, but there is a triad of winter safety risks at this time of year for the elderly: Cold, flu, and falls. It’s important for seniors to be aware of the risks, but it’s also important at this time of year for friends and family members to check in on their aging loved one. Many seniors don’t want to admit they need help, so it’s important for others to recognize an issue before it becomes a major problem.
Here’s what to pay attention to during the end-of-winter months:
Seniors are more sensitive to the cold temperatures. They produce less body heat and have trouble maintaining it due to a slowing metabolism, they engage in less physical activity and they have less muscle mass. In addition, heart and thyroid problems and certain medications may increase the risk. Because of this, they are more susceptible to frostbite or hypothermia than other healthy adults.
- The best things a senior can do to prevent frostbite and hypothermia include:
- Wear weather-appropriate clothing that covers all skin;
- Wear many layers to protect from wind-chill or wetness;
- Eat well to ensure your body has the fuel it needs to help keep you warm;
- Avoid alcohol – it causes your body to lose heat more rapidly;
- Make sure your or your loved one’s home is heated and insulated from the cold.
People tend to stay indoors more during the winter, and seniors’ immune systems weaken as they get older. The combination of the two makes seniors more susceptible to illness during the winter, especially the flu, which can be more severe in the elderly. The flu can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death.
People over 65 are also at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections. Chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes or cardiovascular problems can increase the risk.
The single best way to combat the flu is to get a flu vaccine. The vaccine is easily available from your doctor or at a clinic or pharmacy. It’s recommended to get the vaccine by the end of October, but if you didn’t get it by then, it’s not too late. Flu activity in New Hampshire is widespread right now, and the flu season can last through May. So when it comes to the flu shot, it’s “better late than never.”
Other ways to prevent illness include:
- Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Washing your hands often – rub your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoiding people who are sick
- Staying home when you’re sick
If you feel like you’re developing flu symptoms, go to the doctor. Anti-viral drugs need to be administered early to be effective. And get a pneumococcal vaccine to help prevent flu-related complications such as pneumonia.
Seniors suffering falls are seen in ERs all year, but the number of cases goes up during the winter months. "People over 60 tend to fall at least twice a year even without ice conditions," Dr. Deborah Clements of Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital told the Chicago Tribune. "We lose elasticity in our bodies as we get older. When we combine that with winter months where people wear heavier clothing, that limits your mobility even more."
While you can’t prevent falls completely, you can take steps to mitigate the risk:
- Make sure sidewalks are shoveled and salted;
- Wear nonskid boots;
- Get help with snow shoveling;
- When you go inside, keep snow melt off the floors to help prevent slipping;
- Keep steps in good repair and have handrails.
Seniors should be sure to take their time when walking outdoors – especially as the temperatures go up and down and snow on sidewalks melt and then freezes again. Also, be sure to eat properly and take supplements to maintain bone strength. This will help minimize bone damage if you do fall.
As we said, falls can’t be prevented completely so be sure to have – or be sure you loved one has – a plan in the event you do fall. If you have a cell phone, carry it with you. If you have balance problems or dizziness, consider a personal emergency response system.
NIH Senior Health suggests doing the following if you do fall:
Right After A Fall
- Take several deep breaths to try to relax.
- Remain still on the floor or ground for a few moments. This will help you get over the shock of falling.
- Decide if you're hurt before getting up. Getting up too quickly or in the wrong way could make an injury worse.
Getting Up From a Fall
- If you think you can get up safely without help, roll over onto your side.
- Rest again while your body and blood pressure adjust. Slowly get up on your hands and knees, and crawl to something sturdy to help yourself up:
- Put your hands on the solid surface and slide one foot forward so that it is flat on the floor. Keep the other leg bent so the knee is on the floor.
- From this kneeling position, slowly rise and turn your body.
- If you're hurt or can't get up on your own, ask someone for help or call 911. If you're alone, try to get into a comfortable position and wait for help to arrive.
There’s no reason to stay inside during the winter. You can still go out, enjoy nature and get a little exercise - just be aware of the risks and prepare for them. Before you know it, it will be spring!