Senior Winter Safety: A Guide for Older Adults
Some people seem to tolerate the cold better than others. But no matter how you used to handle frigid temperatures when younger, your tolerance changes as you age, and that affects winter safety when older. The cold puts more stress on you as you age. Your brain may not even notice the difference, but your body does.
What Causes Seniors To Feel the Cold More?
Reduced body fat, less efficient circulation, and slower metabolism come with old age. Any one or combination of those factors can take a toll on seniors in the cold, particularly in extreme weather climates. The more prolonged and severe the cold, the harder it is for the body to maintain a healthy internal temperature. That becomes a real concern for seniors who are malnourished or dehydrated. That’s why eating well and staying hydrated during extreme weather—hot or cold—is vital to ensure safety.
Certain medications and health conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disorders, and liver disease, can also affect an elder’s ability to regulate body temperature.
Winter Weather: Risks and Hazards
Severe complications can occur when older adults are subjected to cold temperatures. Take care to avoid these problems:
- Frostbite is a painful condition that can affect exposed or even covered skin in arctic-like temps. If your skin turns red or dark or starts hurting, get inside. If the affected area remains discolored, run warm water over it and seek medical care.
- Seniors with lung disease or compromised respiratory systems are advised to loosely cover their mouths and noses to avoid directly breathing in too much frigid, dry air and potentially setting off wheezing, coughing fits, or shortness of breath.
- Dehydration is a common problem because seniors tend to eat and drink less than they should, thus consuming less water. Even if you feel less thirsty in winter, your body still needs hydration. Cold, dry air also contributes to moisture loss, which is another reason to stay up on your water intake. Signs of dehydration include infrequent urination, dark urine, dizziness and confusion. Complications of dehydration can be serious, but monitoring water intake is an easy way to get enough fluids.
- Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops dangerously low and can be brought on by prolonged exposure to cold. Even a chilly indoor environment can put seniors at risk for hypothermia if they don’t dress warmly and take precautions to keep warm air in and cool air out. Put air stoppers, even folded towels, at the base of doors to keep drafts out and prevent warm air from escaping. Early signs of hypothermia include cold hands and feet, a puffy, swollen face, pale skin, shivering, slow or slurred speech, drowsiness, and fits of anger or confusion. If exposure is prolonged, later signs include moving slowly, trouble walking, clumsiness, stiff and jerky arm or leg movements, a slow heartbeat, slow or shallow breathing, and even losing consciousness. Call 911 if you suspect hypothermia.
- Sometimes, the things we do to ward off the cold can be as or more dangerous than the cold itself. Space heaters and electric blankets can help, but their heating coils and power cords tend to wear out from repeated use. Plus, they present potential electric shock, burn, and flammable hazards if not properly maintained or used. Using fireplaces and wood stoves can be a charming way to add warmth to a room, but make sure the flues are clean and open; otherwise, they can produce toxic levels of carbon monoxide. Never use a gas oven to heat a room because it’s not designed for that purpose, and with continuous operation, it can emit deadly fumes. Carbon monoxide poisoning is also a threat if gas furnaces are not well maintained.
Essential Winter Safety Tips for Seniors
Extended outdoor exposure to cold and wind can pose serious risks to anyone, especially seniors. Winter safety precautions apply to everyone and take on added importance for seniors, which is why experts recommend these tips to stay safe and warm in winter weather:
- Only go out in the cold dressed in layers of loose-fitting clothes.
- Make sure to cover your head and neck.
- If it’s both damp and cold outside, wear a waterproof coat or jacket. Change your clothes right away if they get damp or wet.
- Make sure your home’s windows are sealed and covered. Rooms where you eat, sleep, work or recreate should be well ventilated. If there are rooms you don’t use in winter, close their vents and doors to distribute heat where needed.
- Keep your dwelling’s thermostat at a minimum of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during winter, never letting it go below 65. If your home is any colder than that, the furnace must work overtime to compensate for the cold. Your body has to work harder as well.
- Check to make sure your home has at least one operable carbon monoxide detector.
- Low-income seniors struggling to pay their heating bills can contact the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) project at 1-866-674-6327 (TTY 1-866-367-6228) or [email protected] to get information about the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Some seniors may qualify for financial assistance to weatherize their homes through LIHEAP.
- Staying healthy in wintertime includes keeping current on COVID-19, flu and pneumonia vaccinations and getting plenty of rest. Eating homemade chicken soup as part of a well-balanced, nutritious diet can help keep the doctor away, too.
It’s a Wonderland: Winter Weather Hazards
Cold temperatures are not the only hazard seniors encounter in winter. Storms that dump snow and ice can make travel difficult or inadvisable, increasing the risk of accidents and falls. Slipping and falling on ice is a real danger that can result in serious injuries requiring medical care and long periods of healing. Here are tips to keep safe:
- If you go outside in winter conditions, wear nonskid shoes or boots. It’s best to move cautiously, employing mincing steps. If mobility or balance issues are a concern, only move about with the aid of a cane or the support of another person.
- A major winter storm can prevent getting groceries or even having them delivered, so it’s important to have a stock of nonperishable food and water on hand as well as updated medications and first aid supplies. An extended power outage can disrupt heat sources, which makes it imperative to have extra warm clothing and bedding. Check with local government agencies for free senior meal delivery services.
- There’s an increased risk of heart attack or stroke as well as shoulder, back, hip and knee injuries due to overexertion when shoveling snow and breaking up ice. Out-of-shape seniors not used to strenuous physical activity or with chronic health conditions need to be extra cautious. The denser the snow and ice cover, the harder and heavier it is to lift and remove. What you may have been able to do relatively easily even a few years before may be too much of a strain now. If possible, arrange for a neighbor, family member, or service to shovel or plow. Check with local government agencies for free snow removal services offered to seniors.
- If you are determined to remove snow and ice yourself, it’s best to do it in stages, making sure to stay warm, dry and hydrated. Remember to bend your knees when scooping, carrying and tossing snow and ice.
- Be prepared and have a plan for extreme weather, such as a winter safety kit. If you opt to drive in winter weather conditions, pack the following items:
- First aid kit
- Extra warm clothes
- Booster cables
- Windshield scraper
- Rock salt, sand, or cat litter (in case your wheels get stuck)
- Water and dried or canned food
- Can opener!
How Right at Home Can Help
Right at Home offers a range of in-home care options for seniors and adults with disabilities. Our trained and insured/bonded caregivers can help keep seniors safe and warm in their homes with a wide range of companionship/homemaking and personal care services. Download our FREE Fall Prevention Guide for tips to help an aging loved one reduce fall risks around their home, or use our office locator to speak to the office nearest you for more information.
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