The winter months are here. As temperatures chill, then warm up and become cold again, now is as good a time as ever to brush up on your winter safety when caring for an elderly person. While you may not feel very cold, the senior in your life could be freezing.
To stay protected in cold weather, here are some winter safety tips for older adults:
- Stock up on essentials for the senior and try not to run out so they don’t have to go shopping in inclement weather
- Choose a furnace for heating, above all else
- Ensure your senior dresses for the weather, wearing several layers of clothing
- Teach the elder how to walk in snowy conditions or icy weather to prevent falls, as well as how to fall the right way to minimize damage
How cold is too cold for seniors? Are the elderly at an elevated health risk in the cold weather? In this article, we’ll answer those questions and more. We’ll also provide more tips for winter safety for seniors during this dangerous time, so keep reading!
How Does Cold Weather Affect The Elderly?
If you’ve ever wondered how you could play outside for hours in the snow as a child without shivering, it turns out your age has a lot to do with it.
This New York Times article notes that your feet and hands may get colder faster as you grow older. That said, too much cold sensitivity may indicate an underlying medical condition such as diabetes or hypertension.
This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding what older people may experience in the winter. A senior may also sleep more often, or try to, because of the increased darkness in the cold season.
If they have arthritis or other conditions that cause chronic pain, then their pain may be higher in the winter seasons compared to warmer times of the year.
Also, with less body heat, a senior’s blood vessels become more constricted, which could prevent oxygenation to their body. This means there is a greater risk that a preexisting heart condition could worsen.
Although you typically only associate hypothermia with freezing cold, outdoor weather, it’s possible for seniors to experience this condition without a trek through arctic temps. We’ve
written about hypothermia in seniors on our blog before, and it’s a very real concern in the wintertime.
If any senior family members are experiencing symptoms like confusion, slowed speech, word slurring, exhaustion, and much slower movements, these are signs of hypothermia. Get them medical attention right away.
What Temperature Is Too Dangerous For Elderly People?
Sometimes people will lower the temperature in their home to save on heating bills. But, now that you know a senior is susceptible to hypothermia, you’re probably wondering how cold – exactly – is too cold for the elderly?
Anything under 67 degrees Fahrenheit may be pushing it. Try to stick to a range of 68 degrees to 74 degrees. The indoor temperature will influence the body temperature of your senior.
That should be anywhere from 98.2 to 99.9 degrees; yes, even that higher range is normal. If a senior’s body temp exceeds 100 degrees, you should you pay attention as it may indicate a fever.
Winter Safety Checklist For Seniors
Once you have the appropriate temperature set for your senior loved one’s home, your work doesn’t end there. Here is a winter safety checklist you should follow every year when the temperatures begin to dip and the days shorten:
Avoid Using Lanterns, Gas Heaters, Or Fireplaces
A wood stove, lanterns, gas heaters, and even fireplaces may all seem like fantastic heating options for your senior’s home. While a fireplace can pose a pretty high fire risk if not maintained properly,
there’s something even more sinister at play.
These three heating solutions may all release carbon monoxide at a dangerous level. Carbon monoxide poisoning could kill a senior (and anyone else in the home). Remember, carbon monoxide has no smell or taste, so it’s often impossible to pick up on until it’s too late.
There should always be a working carbon monoxide detector in the home of your senior. Also, make sure the CO detector has fresh batteries at the batteries at the first sign of colder weather. This goes for any other time of the year as well.
Never Let Their Medicine Cabinet Or Pantry Reach Empty
If your senior runs out of an essential, such as bread, milk, or an arthritis medication, then they’re going to feel inclined to go out and get more.
Even if there aren’t snowy or icy conditions outside, the extreme cold of winter can make leaving the home unsupervised potentially dangerous for the senior. Plus, with less daylight, if the elderly person in your life struggles with nighttime driving, then getting in the car becomes a lot riskier.
If it is possible, it’s much better for you to come over and check on your senior’s medicine cabinet and pantry. If they need something, stock up so they’re not at risk of running out. Then, keep replenishing their supply every week or so.
Have A Power Outage Preparedness Plan
If your senior parent lives on their own, then there’s always a risk that winter weather could cause power outages. What would they do in such a situation?
- Do they have a radio that runs on batteries so they can get updates in a severe winter storm?
- Are flashlights accessible and loaded with fresh batteries so they’re ready to be used when necessary?
- Do they have extra batteries and emergency supplies of non-perishable foods on hand?
- Does your senior know the number of their power supplier so they can call or even text for updates?
If you’re not sure of the answer to any of the above questions, then you need to sit down with your senior and create a power outage preparedness plan.
While you or someone else would obviously try to get to the senior as soon as possible, sometimes this may take a few hours (or even days). That’s especially true if you have to dig out after a major snowstorm and drive slowly in icy, snowy road conditions.
Above all else, you want to make sure your senior stays warm somehow. Whether they put on a warm hat, heavy coat, and extra layers of clothing or use one blanket or several, doing something like this should allow them to trap in more body heat and avoid hypothermia.
A Heater Or Furnace Is Your Best Heating Option
While products like ceramic space heaters don’t release carbon monoxide, they’re still a danger as a major fire hazard. Instead, above all else, your senior should have central heating via a furnace or household heater.
A central heater is operable via the thermostat and does not require the elderly person to get too close to a heat source.
If your senior loved one hasn’t had their heater maintained in a while, call a technician before the winter begins. This way, you know their heating system is ready to run for another long cold season.
Remember, just because you are not very cold doesn’t mean it’s the same case for your senior.
Even if they’re staying indoors, make sure they wear layers. A t-shirt or a long-sleeved shirt under a sweater, as well as some long johns beneath pants, will help to keep your senior nice and toasty. They can always remove layers if they get too warm.
If leaving the house, your senior should wear warm clothing, including:
- a hat for head warmth
- a full winter coat (make sure it’s warm and long)
- gloves or mittens
- a scarf
- warm socks
- and winter boots.
Keep A Second Set Of Winter Outerwear In The Car
During a recent cold snap in my city, I had an elderly patient come in for dental care. She had driven herself to the appointment (she lives alone) and came into our office in 34 degree temps – wearing nothing more than a sweater. The reason? She hadn’t realized it was “that cold out” and she didn’t want to run late to her appointment by taking the time to go back to her apartment to get warm clothes.
After wrapping her up in warm blankets, I discussed the dangers of cold temperatures for seniors. She promised to get right home after her appointment, instead of running her intended errands, and getting a coat, hat, and gloves first.
I also recommended that she leave a spare coat, gloves, and hat in her car, so she had them if it was colder out than she expected. And assured her I would never be upset with her if she was late because she was taking care of her health!
How Can You Prevent Winter Falls?
We just wrote about 7 Simple Winter Fall Prevention Tips For Seniors. If you missed the article, it’s a good idea to check it out, especially if you regularly travel with your senior in winter.
There are several ways to avoid icy slips and falls that we talked about in that article. Here’s a recap:
- Wear the right footwear: Seniors should only step foot outside in winter boots or shoes. These should have a rubber sole (never leather or another material) with grooves for gripping ice and providing good traction.
- Keep their paths and driveways properly shoveled: By shoveling quickly, ice can’t form between the growing layers of snow and pose a possible walking hazard.
- Learn to walk on snow and ice: It’s called the penguin walk or waddle, and although it may look a little silly, it could save lives. When walking, senior’s should take concerted baby steps while bending forward. Their arms should remain at their sides, not shoved in their coat pockets. The point of walking like this is to keep the center of gravity nearer the feet.
- Know the right way to take a fall: If a senior is falling on ice, the way they handle it matters. They should try to bend their knees so their fall distance lessens. By crossing their arms over their chest, there’s lower risk of broken bones. The senior should then tuck their chin down and try to aim their body to the side so they don’t land on their head or back.
Winter Wellness Tips For Seniors
The wellness of your senior loved one is paramount any time of the year, but in the winter, there are certain threats to their happiness that are worse than other seasons.
These include depression, feelings of isolation, lack of exercise, and seasonal illnesses. Let’s talk more about how to combat each of these now.
Keep An Eye Out For Seasonal Depression (SAD)
If your senior already has depression, it could worsen in the winter. You may also notice that this is the only time of year in which your elder seems gloomy. If so, then it may be seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The shorter days and lack of light that come with winter can make a lot of people feel down. While increasing vitamin D intake via a vitamin or spending time outside may help, never hesitate to take a senior to a doctor or mental health professional if you’re truly concerned.
When we are all stuck inside because of a winter storm, home-bound seniors can experience even more loneliness and feelings of isolation.
Be sure to call and check on the senior in your life on a daily basis, if at all possible.
You might also consider teaching them how to use a video app like FaceTime or Skype, or gifting them something like an Amazon Echo Show so they can talk to loved ones and friends via video chatting.
If your senior loved one just sits around rather than getting up and moving around, their depression could become more severe. Exercise is also good for physical health, so make sure the person keeps up on their fitness regimen in the wintertime. This can also prevent weight gain, which can make a senior feel worse about themselves.
Avoid Illnesses Like the Flu and Colds
When the weather is at its coldest, viruses like the cold and flu spread rampantly.
To reduce the chances of getting sick, seniors should always wash their hands before eating and after going out. They should also avoid touching their face with unclean hands.
A flu shot is also strongly recommended. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), once someone turns 65, the rate of developing flu complications goes up. Because these complications can be deadly, seniors should follow health habits all winter long.
Additionally, the CDC says adults age 50 years and older should NOT get the nasal flu vaccine. Instead they should only get the flu shot – and those age 65 years of older should get, “the adjuvanted and high-dose inactivated vaccines.“
The winter brings with it a lot of risks for older adults. Not only could they slip and fall on ice or snow, but a senior may also develop hypothermia, seasonal depression, and flu complications.
The tips and information in this post are a great starting point for keeping an elderly loved one healthy, happy, and comfortable until spring finally arrives.