Winter is a time of celebration, but it is also a season for snow, ice, and other health hazards that can prove perilous for those seniors unprepared.
There is a litany of potential health dangers associated with the winter months and inclement weather that can affect people of all ages. These events can be dangerous — even fatal — for older adults, say physicians.
“Something as simple as a fall can be devastating for older men and women,” says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, director of the Division of Geriatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Hospital. “Before the cold weather arrives, it is important to prepare.”
If streets become icy or slick, she suggests wearing comfortable shoes with anti-slip soles to increase traction while walking. If using a cane to navigate, replace the rubber tip before it is worn smooth and becomes slippery on the wet ice, she says. Seniors may also benefit from using a product such as the Retractable Ice Tip Cane.
Slips and falls inside the home can also increase during winter’s darker days. Dr. Granieri says that older adults typically have difficulty adjusting to changes in light. High contrasts in lighting, she says, can increase a senior’s risk of slip and falls.
Keep your home hazard-free by taking some simple, inexpensive precautions, says Dr. Granieri:
Make sure there are no great lighting contrasts from one room to another. Also, use night lights, 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 up as you walk.
Another particular health problem for older adults — that actually begins each October — is influenza. At particular risk for complications from the flu are those mature adults with chronic medical conditions. Vaccinations can provide some protection during flu season, which stretches from mid-October and lasts through March.
Hypothermia is another problem with the onset of colder weather. Thermostats should be set to at least 65 degrees as a preventive measure. About 600 Americans every year die from hypothermia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Half of those individuals affected are 65-years-old or older.
“As persons age, their risk for dying from hypothermia increases,” noted the agency. “Approximately 71% of the hypothermia-related deaths in 2001 occurred during November-February.”
Keeping your home warmer has an added benefit: preventing pipes from freezing and possibly breaking or bursting.
Dr. Granieri says it is also extremely important for the 60-plus set to remain hydrated — not just in summer. Drink at least four or five glasses of fluid every day, she says.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., Nutritional Sciences, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia says:
Dehydration is one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization among people over the age of 65. Worse, at least one study has found that about one-half of those hospitalized for dehydration died within a year of admission.
She adds that “Older people are at greatest risk for dehydration because the mechanism that normally triggers thirst becomes less sensitive with age. In addition, as we age, a lower percentage of our body weight is water, so dehydration can occur more rapidly.”
A variety of factors can contribute to dehydration, including illness — which can disrupt normal patterns of eating and drinking — and drinking alcoholic beverages.
Although you may not feel as thirsty, older adults can dehydrate more quickly. Dehydration also increases your risk for catching a cold as well as developing ongoing medical problems such as arthritis, kidney stones, and even heart disease, Dr. Granieri says.
Another real danger for all ages is the potential for house fires. Every home should be properly equipped with smoke alarms. The CDC notes that winter weather can bring about unique challenges for staying warm when the power fails or there is inadequate heating. The agency states that when people “must use space heaters and fireplaces to stay warm, the risk of household fires increases, as well as the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.” This makes it essential to install a carbon monoxide detector.
Older adults living alone should invest in a personal emergency-response system and service. Whether it’s worn around the neck or clipped, the handy device can connect you to the help you need. One such device is the Designed for Seniors™ Personal Medical Alarm, which offers battery backup in case of a power failure.
With a few ounces of these and other winter prevention measures, wise seniors can avoid the high cost of paying for weather-related accidents.