Keeping seniors safe in winter weather

Here in the Kansas City area, we’ve had a pretty mild fall, but we’re getting those first tastes of winter. Winter can be a dangerous time, especially for seniors. One-half of the people who die from hypothermia in the United States are age 65 or older, and they’re also more prone to accidents on the ice and snow. Whether you’re a senior yourself or, like me, your parents are seniors, here are some ways to keep seniors safe this winter:

1. Keep warm.

When you’re out and about in cold weather, it’s important to dress warmly (and in layers, which makes it easier to stay warm and also allows you to peel layers if you’re in a warmer place). What may be surprising is that it is possible to become hypothermic indoors. Keep thermostats set to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit. If costs are a concern, you might want to consider covering particularly drafty windows (the demonstration I linked to sort of ends in a commercial, but it’s still worthwhile).

Also, if you’re using space heaters to stay warm be careful with them. If you’re using a gas-powered space heater, it needs to be well-ventilated, and you should have working carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors. If your space heater is electric, make sure that the cords are in good shape and that the area around the space heater is clear of anything flammable. I use an electric space heater in my office, and I prefer to leave it unplugged when I’m not using it.

2. Avoid staying outside for extended periods.

Even if you’re dressed in layers, prolonged exposure to the cold can be dangerous–not just for hypothermia, but also for frostbite. When you’re outside in the cold, make sure you have clothing for your extremities–they’re the parts that are likely to get cold first. Hats, gloves, socks, and shows are all important for avoiding frostbite.

3. Avoid slips and falls.

Snow and ice is going to accumulate in the winter. If possible, try to get help with clearing steps, sidewalks, and driveways. There is a real link between shoveling snow and heart attacks, especially among people who aren’t used to activity as intense as shoveling snow. These heart attacks are particularly dangerous because with snow and ice on the roads, it’s harder to get to patients. Heart attacks aren’t the only risk of over-exertion; the lifting motions involved in shoveling snow can cause back injuries as well.

If you’re shoveling snow, here are some ways to protect yourself:

  • Dress warmly. The exercise itself will help you keep you warm, but you should keep clothing layered and keep extremities covered.
  • Take breaks. I like to plan to take a break every so often (I stop every half hour, but that’s not a magic rule, do what works best for you), and set a reminder on my phone to let me know when it’s break time.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water before you start and on your breaks. You’re going to sweat and lose fluids, and you should replace them.
  • Avoid lifting if you can. The article I linked to above suggests trying to push snow out of the way rather than lifting it. When feasible, there’s nothing wrong with not lifting the snow if you don’t have to.

Snow isn’t the only problem, of course–there’s also ice to contend with. To reduce the risk of slips and falls, you’ll want to put down rock salt, sand, or kitty litter on walkways and steps.

4. Prepare a disaster kit for emergencies.

If a major winter storm comes through, that can become a major disruption in utility service and transportation. I once lost power for a week during a major ice storm, and “inconvenient” is about the nicest word I can use for the experience. It’s useful to keep supplies on hand in case you have to ride out a storm without much ability to get around and without utility service.

The American Red Cross has a pretty comprehensive list of what should go in your supply kit, including:

  • At a minimum, a 3-day supply of water, 1 gallon per day per person
  • At a minimum, a 3-day supply of food; don’t forget that you may not be able to do much cooking (an electric range and oven are not much help when the power’s out)
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio, preferably one that can get NOAA Weather Radio
  • Extra batteries–of each of the types you’d be using in an emergency
  • Extra supplies for small children and pets
  • Multi-purpose tool/Swiss army knife
  • Extra 7 days of prescription medications, syringes, hearing aids, glasses, contact lenses and cleaning fluid, or other medical items

Creating the emergency kit is really just the first step, because you’ll want to properly store the items, update items, and throw out obsolete items.

5. Keep active during the winter.

It’s so easy to become inactive in the winter–you’re outside less, and it’s easy to curl up on the couch and wait until warm weather returns (no judgment here, I’m bad about this too!). Even if outdoor activity isn’t an option, it’s possible to keep active at home as well. Not sure what to do? The National Institute on Aging has exercise suggestions (and a YouTube playlist demonstrating the exercises). Of course, the NIA also recommends checking with your doctor if you’re over 50, not used to physical activity, or if you have certain physical conditions, such as dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, the sensation that your heart is skipping, racing, or fluttering, joint swelling, and recent surgeries (and there’s a full list at the link).

Of course, winter can be an enjoyable time of year. By taking a few precautions, we can help ensure that it stays enjoyable.

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