A senior’s fall risk increases once winter sets in. Winter falls also have a higher chance of leading to a traumatic injury and death, according to an article from the Mayo Clinic. Even something as simple as going to the mailbox or taking out the garbage becomes more treacherous in winter!
To help you stay safe, here are some winter fall prevention tips for seniors:
- Don’t go out if you don’t have to.
- Slow down and give yourself extra time.
- Dress for the weather, even if you don’t think you’ll be outside for long.
- Carry a cell phone, even for a quick trip to the mailbox.
- Wear non-slip boots or shoes or use cleats.
- Use something to steady yourself.
- Clear your path and / or spread something on the ground for traction as you walk.
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How Can We Prevent Winter Falls?
In the Mayo Clinic article I referred to above, Dr. Jeremy L. Fogelson, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester, MN campus explains that winter conditions can lead to more fall accidents in seniors because, “They are more likely to have an unsteady gait, and the bones are less strong and flexible. Also, depending on an elderly person’s physical state, sidewalks may not be tended to as much and icy conditions will build up.“
Orthopedic injuries from falls, such as broken bones in the wrist, arm, ankle or hip, are common in all seasons. For older adults, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, which ultimately can be fatal. Even for elderly patients who do not die due to injury from a fall, consequences can lead to nursing home stays and subsequent health decline.Mayo Clinic
In order for older people to prevent winter falls, they should take certain precautions before going outside – especially in snowy or icy weather conditions.
To reduce your risk of fall-related injuries during the colder weather months, take the simple precautions outlined in the following sections.
Don’t Go Out If You Don’t Have To
Think about it – do you REALLY need to get the mail, take out the garbage, or run to the grocery store if it is snowy and icy?
Trust me, the mail can wait and the garbage can be set outside the door for drop off into a bin when the snow or icy conditions have been cleared.
Keeping an eye on the weather forecast will allow you to stock up on necessities before a winter storm hits. And there are tons of delivery services out there now.
Companies like UberEats or GrubHub will bring food right to your door. The majority of grocery stores also offer delivery services.
It’s worth paying for these, on occasion, to keep you safe.
Slow Down And Give Yourself Extra Time
If you must go out after a winter storm, don’t be in a hurry. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going.
Also, leave extra early so you aren’t trying to hustle across the icy surfaces of parking lots, sidewalks or driveways because you’re running late.
Walk slowly, taking short steps to minimize your risk of falling.
Carry your cellphone, just in case you do fall and need to call for help.
Dress For The Weather
PLEASE put on a winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves when you go out for ANY reason in the winter!
People think they are fine to make the short trek to the mail box or their garbage cans, so they often just dash out without dressing properly for the weather.
Then, BOOM, they slip and fall and could end up laying there for who knows how long?
You’re risking hypothermia and worse if you go outside without dressing for the weather.
ALWAYS Carry A Cell Phone Or Other Alert Device
I have an elderly family member who just spent part of the summer recovering from a broken leg. She’s 85 and she fell when she went out to put the garbage in the bins across the driveway from her apartment.
She wasn’t wearing her Life Alert, because she was “just” going maybe 100 feet from her door.
Luckily, it was summer, so she didn’t freeze to death – because this poor, sweet lady lay on the ground, calling for help, for close to four hours before a car full of young men spotted her.
They called 911 and stayed with her until the ambulance arrived.
Her fall was bad enough, but can you imagine how awful the outcome would be if this happened to an older person in the winter?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll “just” dash out and be right back.
Always err on the side of caution – especially in cold weather. Dress properly (and TAKE YOUR CELL PHONE!).
Forget About Being Stylish
When it’s snowy or icy, you need footwear with good traction.
Forget about wearing cute, fashionable boots or high heels – wear low-heeled shoes or winter boots with non-skid soles, instead.
And consider using cleats on them (see next section).
You can always bring the stylish footwear with you and change into them when you are inside your destination.
Believe me, it’s not worth a fall just to be a fashionista.
Okay, so they aren’t very attractive, but again, it’s not worth risking a broken limb or a worse injury if you need to go out on slippery surfaces like ice and snow. Get a pair to keep in the car, as well.
This is especially important if you are going out to remove snow from your driveway or walkway.
*NOTE – always remove cleats when you aren’t on ice and snow! They are very slippery on hardwood, linoleum, tile, or concrete floors.
There are a couple of choices in cleats:
- Rubber soled cleats with steel studs: They cover most of the bottom of a shoe or boot and are light and foldable so you can carry them in a pocket or purse. This type seems to wear out / break quicker than the chain cleats. *TIP: For maximum traction, we recommend cleats that cover the entire sole, not just the cleats that strap across the toes of your shoes or boots.
- Chain cleats with or without spikes: Also lightweight and easy to carry in a pocket or purse.
Use Something To Steady Yourself
Elderly people who are unsteady on their feet should already be using walking aids, like a cane or a walker (and that’s even more reason why they shouldn’t go out on a snowy or icy day!).
For use in winter weather, consider replacing your regular cane tip with an ice gripper cane tip.
If you don’t normally use an assistive device, it can be helpful to walk with a ski pole or a cane – even a broom – at this time of year.
Anything that can be used to steady yourself on slippery ground.
For those who use wheelchairs, you (or a handy friend / relative) can make DIY “snow tires” using plastic wire ties.
The project instructions can be found on the United Spinal Association website.
Clear Your Path And / Or Spread Something On The Ground For Better Traction
It can be very helpful to spread something on the ground in front of you to give you traction as you walk.
The Mayo Clinic suggests carrying a small bag of kitty litter or sand with you when you walk (maybe in a fanny pack so your hands / arms aren’t encumbered).
You can sprinkle handfuls of this material as you go, although this is only practical if you are walking a short distance, such as to the mailbox.
If you already live in a snowy area, you are familiar with using a snow melt substance on sidewalks and steps, but using these products doesn’t eliminate one hundred percent of the ice.
When I lived in Colorado, I still slipped on steps that had already been treated.
If the steps or path is wet and the temperature is below freezing, the wet pavement will still have a slight film of black ice on it.
And don’t think that walking on the grass will keep you from falling, either.
Grass can be wet and slippery after a light, wet snow. I know – I’ve skidded a foot or two on snowy grass before.
What Are The Most Serious Consequences Of A Fall In The Elderly?
Regardless of the winter months, falls are already a leading cause of injury in older adults.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that In fact, every year, one in four adults aged 65 and over fall. And, those falls account for over 32,000 deaths and 3 million trips to the ER every year.
But, beyond the statistics, what are the most serious consequences of a fall in the elderly?
One of the most common injuries sustained in a fall is a fracture. Fractures are no fun, believe me. I tripped in a department store and broke my shoulder in two places a couple years ago.
I was instantly out of work (a dental hygienist needs both arms to work on a patient!).
I went through 7 months of rehab and it’s taken right at a full two years for me to regain about 95 percent of my former mobility.
Fractures can occur in any bone, but are most common in the hip, wrist, and spine.
Fractures can range from minor cracks to complete breaks, and can take weeks or even months to heal properly.
Older adults with osteoporosis are especially at risk for fractures, as their bones are more brittle and susceptible to breakage.
Concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI) is one of the most serious consequences of a fall in the elderly. Falls are the leading cause of TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in people aged 65 and older.
A TBI can change your life instantly—affecting your memory, your ability to think clearly, your emotions, and your physical wellbeing.
If you’ve suffered a TBI as a result of a fall, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.
Hip fractures are another common—and serious—consequence of falling among older adults. In fact, hip fractures are responsible for more than 90% of all non-fatal fall injuries in people aged 65 and over.
A hip fracture can cause immense pain and lead to long-term mobility issues.
And, unfortunately, hip fractures are often just the beginning; after suffering a hip fracture, many older adults experience a downward spiral in their health due to complications like pneumonia or blood clots.
If you’ve fallen and think you may have fractured your hip, it’s important to seek medical attention right away.
Head injuries aren’t the only ones that can be serious—spinal cord injuries can have life-altering consequences as well.
Spinal cord injuries that occur as a result of a fall can lead to paralysis below the site of the injury.
And while some spinal cord injuries may improve over time with rehabilitation and therapy, others may result in permanent disability.
If you experience any numbing or tingling after a fall—especially if below your waist—seek medical attention immediately as this could be indicative of a spinal cord injury.
Death: sadly, falls are also one of the leading causes of death in older adults. Each year, thousands of older Americans die as a result of injuries sustained in a fall.
While anyone can sustain fatal injuries in a fall, older adults are more likely to die from their injuries due to frailty and comorbidities such as heart disease or diabetes.
When Should You Go To The Doctor After A Fall?
If you do go outside in winter and end up slipping and falling on snow or ice, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following tips:
- Don’t get up right away or let anyone help you up immediately; this avoids the potential of causing further injury. Don’t worry about feeling embarrassed. Rather, take your time, lie there for a moment and assess how you are feeling.
- After making an assessment of your injury status, if you can get up, roll to one side. Bend your knees toward you, push up with your arms and then use your legs to stand up the rest of the way.
- If someone assists you to your feet, ensure that he or she doesn’t get hurt, too.
- Use your cellphone or mobile medical alert device if you need assistance getting up from a fall. In many communities, fire departments are available to help citizens get up from falls, even if no injury is present.
- Call 911 or emergency medical help if the fall has led to an emergency situation.
The winter is a dangerous time. The number of falls and emergency room visits increases for the elderly during these colder months.
The good news is that by planning ahead and taking the proper precautions, seniors can reduce the increased risk factors that lead to falls and the potential for serious injuries during the winter.