A recent AARP Home and Community Preferences Survey shows that 77% of adults 50 and older plan to remain in their homes for the long term. As much as they want to live at home, seniors living in cold climates find the winter particularly challenging when living alone. Snow, ice, and wind can be difficult to manage for seniors becoming less agile as they age. Here are some winter safety tips for older adults to utilize during the winter.
Icy and snowy sidewalks and roads can be dangerous for anyone, and especially so for older adults. One of our providers, Nymbl, reports that 1 in 3 older adults will experience a fall in any given year, and 1 in 6 of those falls will require an emergency room visit. Falls can cause severe injuries such as hip, arm, and wrist fractures, head injuries, cuts, and bruises. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths for older adults. There are some simple reasons why this is true.
As you age, your body changes. Your eyesight and hearing may worsen, your flexibility and strength changes, medications may affect your balance, and certain health conditions may cause you to be unsteady on your feet. These are all normal conditions that happen to everyone as we age. There are several things you can do to mitigate these changes and avoid injury during the winter, including
- Ask a family member, neighbor, or a local organization like A Little Help or Cultivate to clear any snow and salt your walkway and driveway.
- Ask someone to go with you on errands and outings to help you navigate sidewalks and parking lots.
- Wear boots or shoes with non-skid soles.
- If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip with a new one if it looks worn or use the ice pick-like attachment for additional traction.
- Remove anything you might trip over, such as doormats.
- Ask your doctor if you could start an exercise plan to strengthen your legs and improve your balance.
- Ask your doctor to recommend a balance program like Nymbl
- The CDC offers resources and worksheets for older adults to avoid falls
Even for those who love winter, it just takes one fall for an older adult to be seriously injured. As you celebrate the season take these simple steps to keep yourself safe.
Bundle Up Against Hypothermia
Older adults can lose body heat very quickly. Normal changes in your body that come with aging can also make it harder for you to be aware of feeling cold. If your body temperature drops and you are not aware of it, you could be heading towards a medical emergency called hypothermia.
Hypothermia happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older adult, a body temperature of 95°F or lower can cause health problems, such as heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.
It’s possible for older adults to experience hypothermia inside if the furnace is set too low. Please make sure to stay warm both inside and outside during the colder months. Before we talk about steps to stay warm, let’s review some signs and symptoms of hypothermia to keep in mind.
Here are the early signs of hypothermia:
- Cold feet and hands
- Puffy or swollen face
- Pale skin
- Slower than normal speech or slurring words
- Acting sleepy
- Being angry or confused
Later signs of hypothermia include:
- Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
- Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
- Slow heartbeat
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Blacking out or losing consciousness
Now let’s talk about how to stay warm in the winter. Here are some winter safety tips for senior citizens to stay warm while inside:
- Set your furnace to at least 68–70°F.
- To stop heat from leaking out through windows, keep blinds and curtains closed. If there are drafty gaps around the windows, use weather stripping, caulk, or plastic to keep the cold air out.
- Dress warmly even when you are home. Keep throw blankets handy. Wear warm socks and slippers and long underwear under your clothes.
- Keep extra comforters and blankets on your bed.
- Keep your weight up. When you don’t eat well, you may lose body fat that keeps you warm
- Alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat. Drink in moderation.
Here are some senior safety tips for keeping warm while outside in the winter:
- Wear layers. 2 or 3 layers of thin and loose-fitting clothing are warmer than a single layer of thick clothing. Thermals are optimal.
- Cover as much skin as possible, including head, hands, and face.
- Don’t get wet because wet clothing causes your body temperature to fall quickly.
- Don’t stay outside for long periods of time, even if you are feeling warm.
Keeping warm in the winter is so important for older adults. Do not hesitate to call 911 if your body temperature dips below 95⁰F or you feel symptoms of hypothermia.
Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Fires
If you use a fireplace or a fuel-powered heating source during the winter, it’s important to regularly maintain those heating elements so they are safe. Fireplaces, kerosene and gas stoves, and gas appliances must be properly vented, cleaned, and used. If they are not, they can leak dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year more than 400 people die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that you can’t see or smell. You may not know that you are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning until it’s too late. However, there are symptoms you can watch out for. They are:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
There are precautions you can take to avoid carbon monoxide leaks.
- Have your chimneys and heating systems inspected annually.
- When using kerosene or gas-fueled appliances, crack open a window.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors in the rooms where you use fireplaces, gas stoves, or kerosene heaters. Replace their batteries every six months.
- Never heat your home with a gas stove, charcoal grill, or any other appliance not made for home heating.
If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, leave the house immediately and call 911 or the fire department. Do not stay indoors to wait for them to arrive.
Make sure to keep all heating elements at least three feet away from anything flammable, including curtains, blankets, rugs, and bedding. Never use appliances not made for home heating like grills, ovens, and dryers. Install smoke detectors on each floor of your home.
Prepare for Winter Isolation
Winter weather may keep some older adults at home alone for long periods of time. Isolation can be physically dangerous for older adults who don’t prepare for power outages and other winter hazards that further isolate them. If you live in an area where the winter weather is unpredictable, it’s smart to prepare by stockpiling food, water, blankets, extra medications, and other necessities just in case.
Winter isolation can also cause depression and loneliness for some older adults. 43% of older adults report feeling lonely on a regular basis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These feelings can manifest into irritability, fatigue and sadness, even death.
The Journal of Primary Prevention stated that “social isolation has been demonstrated to lead to numerous detrimental health effects in older adults, including increased risk for all-cause mortality, dementia, increase the risk for re-hospitalization, and an increased number of falls.” In addition, University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo reported that feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of dying early by 14%.
Family members should play an integral role in keeping their older loved ones engaged. Here are some ideas to start with:
- Set a schedule for check-in phone or video calls with family members. Even when the weather is bad, phone calls can be an effective connection point and something isolated seniors can look forward to.
- Invite a neighbor to visit every so often for coffee or a meal.
- Connect with local services for seniors like Care Calls and Visits from A Little Help
- Create a neighborhood book club or board game group to meet at your house periodically
If you need more ideas on how to combat senior loneliness, please read our recent blog post about the dangers of social isolation. There is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. The isolation that winter weather causes only exacerbates the issue. Be mindful of how you are feeling and take steps to alleviate it as soon as you can.
When the temperature drops, older adults run a higher risk of health problems and injuries related to the winter weather. Like most things in life, it is better to be prepared. This post offers a few winter safety tips for senior citizens living at home.
Good health starts with good balance. Nymbl was founded by Dr. JP Farcy, a doctor who had the vision to transform balance training through “dual-tasking.” With a passion to offer older adults a safe and effective fall prevention solution, Nymbl is on its way to preventing 1 million falls.
A Little Help is a nonprofit organization that connects Colorado neighbors of all ages to enhance lives and strengthen communities. They assist older adults in aging at home by linking them to good neighbors who can help with transportation, yard work, home organization, and social engagement. The mission is to empower older adults to thrive at home.