Keep Your Older Adult Safe This Winter
Winter is a special time for celebration. It should also be a time for added caution if you or someone in your family is an older adult. It is the season for falls, slips on icy streets and other dangers that can be especially harmful for older adults.
“Something as simple as a fall can be devastating for older men and women,” says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, Chief of Geriatric Medicine and Aging at NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “Before the cold weather arrives, it is important to prepare.”
Dr. Granieri addresses some of the most pressing concerns mature adults have about their health and safety during the winter:
Influenza is a serious illness that can be fatal in older adults, who often have chronic medical conditions. The vaccine offers some, if not complete, protection against the flu and its consequences and can be administered as early as September. The flu season begins in mid-October and runs through March.
To learn more about the vaccines you need, see the Adult Immunization Vaccine Finder at vaccines.gov (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to receive personalized vaccine recommendations based on your age, health status, location and other factors.You can also review the Adult Immunization Schedule to see which vaccines you may need.
Don’t forget if you are traveling, you may need additional vaccines. See the travelers’ health page.
Talk to your healthcare professional about making sure you have all the vaccines you need to protect your health.
Keep your thermostat set to at least 65 degrees to prevent hypothermia. Hypothermia kills about 600 Americans every year, half of whom are 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, keeping the temperature at 65 or higher, even when you are not at home, will help prevent pipes from freezing.
When you think about being cold, you probably think of shivering. That is one way the body stays warm when it gets cold. But, shivering alone does not mean you have hypothermia. How do you know if someone has hypothermia? Look for the “umbles”—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles—these show that the cold is a problem.
- Confusion or sleepiness
- Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
- A lot of shivering or no shivering; stiffness in the arms or legs
- Poor control over body movements or slow reactions
Remember that some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm. These include problems with your body’s hormone system such as low thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), health problems that keep blood from flowing normally (like diabetes), and some skin problems where your body loses more heat than normal.
Some health problems may make it hard for you to put on more clothes, use a blanket, or get out of the cold.
- Severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or other illnesses that make it tough to move around
- Stroke or other illnesses that can leave you paralyzed and may make clear thinking more difficult
- Memory loss
- A fall or other injury
When the winter air is crisp and the ground is covered with snow, there’s nothing like taking a walk to enjoy the beauty of the season — and walking is one of the best ways to keep fit.
On the other hand, winter can be a challenging time of year to get out and about. Freezing rain, icy surfaces and piles of hard-packed snow pose a hazard for the innocent pedestrian.
A few simple measures can make it safer to walk outdoors in the winter. Removing snow and ice, putting sand or salt on areas where people walk, and wearing the right footwear all make a big difference.
Just one bad fall on ice can have long-term consequences. These include: chronic pain in the affected area; a disabling injury that may mean loss of independence; or fear of another fall, which discourages a healthy, active lifestyle.
Here are some practical suggestions for safe winter mobility:
As winter approaches, outfit yourself for safe walking:
Choose a good pair of winter boots. For warmth and stability look for these features: well-insulated, waterproof, thick non-slip tread sole made of natural rubber, wide low heels, light-weight.
Ice grippers on footwear can help you walk on hard packed snow and ice. But be careful! Grippers become dangerously slippery and must be removed before walking on smooth surfaces such as stone, tile and ceramic.
Use a cane, or even a pair of walking poles to help with balance. Make sure they’re the right height for you. When your cane is held upside down, the end should be at wrist level.
If using a cane, attach a retractable ice pick to the end. Cane picks will be slippery on hard surfaces so be sure to flip it back as you get indoors.
If you need further support, use a walker. The cost might be defrayed by government programs; talk with your doctor.
Wear a hip protector (a lightweight belt or pant with shields to guard the hips). It can help protect the hips against fractures and give added confidence.
Help other road users see you by wearing bright colors or adding reflective material to clothing.
These adhesive reflective strips are perfect for affixing to shoes or other clothing items to increase visibility. They have high intensity reflectivity and a sticker backing.
Prevent heat loss by wearing a warm hat, scarf, and mittens or gloves.
Dressing in layers may also keep you warmer.
Once the snow and ice arrive, make sure your walking surfaces are safe:
Keep entranceways and sidewalks clear of ice and snow. Report hazards on sidewalks or pathways to your landlord or the City.
Contact your local home support agency or other community services for help with snow removal, transportation and grocery bus services.
Carry a small bag of grit, sand or non clumping cat litter in your jacket pocket or handbag, to sprinkle when you are confronted with icy sidewalks, steps, bus stops, etc.
Ask a passer-by to help you cross an icy surface.
Walking on Ice
Facing an icy surface can be a paralyzing experience. Not everyone has grippers and other safety aids. So, what should you do if it’s impossible to avoid an icy patch? Believe it or not, body movements can increase your stability on an icy surface.
Slow down and think about your next move. Keeping your body as loose as possible, spread your feet to more than a foot apart to provide a base of support. This will help stabilize you as you walk.
Keep your knees loose — let them bend a bit. This will keep your center of gravity lower to the ground, which further stabilizes the body.
Now you are ready to take a step. Make the step small, placing your whole foot down at once. Then shift your weight very slowly to this foot and bring your other foot to meet it the same way. Keep a wide base of support.
Some people prefer to drag their feet or shuffle them. If this feels better to you, then do so. Just remember to place your whole foot on the ice at once and keep your base of support approximately one foot wide.
Of course, it’s always better to avoid tricky situations by being prepared and planning a safe route for your walk.
Make sure your smoke alarms are working. You should also have working carbon monoxide alarms.
Falling In The Home
Winter means fewer hours of daylight. Older people often need brighter lights in the home. You may also have difficulty adjusting to changes in light, and different levels of lighting may increase the risk of slips and falls. Make sure there are no great lighting contrasts from one room to another. Also, use night lights, especially in the bathroom, and don’t have loose extension cords lying around—tape them to the floor. Make sure rugs are not wrinkled or torn in a way that can trip you as you walk.
Try to avoid strenuous activities like shoveling snow. You should ask your doctor if this level of activity is advisable. If you must shovel, warm up your body with a few stretching exercises before you begin and be sure to take frequent breaks throughout.
Drink at least four or five glasses of fluid every day. This should not change just because it is winter. You may not feel as thirsty as you do in the summer months, but as you get older, your body can dehydrate more quickly, putting you at greater risk for complications from a number of illnesses and also changing how your body responds to some medications.
This usually occurs because of dry skin. Wear more protective creams and lotions to prevent the dry and itchy skin commonly experienced in the colder months when humidity levels are lower. You should apply them after bathing and then daily.
For winter, I like U-Lactin Dry Skin Lotion; its a non greasy, fragrance free lotion, made with 10% urea, a humectant, and 2% lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy-acid.
For older persons living alone, it is a good idea to have a way to communicate quickly with other persons or medical personnel. If you have a cell phone, keep it handy.
Another option is a personal emergency response system—a device worn around the neck or on a bracelet that can summon help if needed. Always have a fully-stocked home emergency First Aid kit on hand, as well.
If you are a caregiver, please remember to check on your loved one frequently. Offer to shop for her or him and check on medications when the weather is very cold and snowy. And remind any person who interacts with her/him to get a flu shot.
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