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Winter is a magical time: cuddling up indoors with hot cocoa and marshmallows while the snow gently falls outside. But it can also be a dangerous time, especially for the seniors in your life. Winter presents challenges to all of us, but seniors living alone are particularly vulnerable.

Help them stay safe this winter by talking to them about these dangers and how to avoid them:

Icy roads and walkways

Anyone can slip and fall on icy sidewalks, but the repercussions are more dangerous — and often deadly —for older people. As you age, recovery from broken bones or head trauma gets harder, and the likelihood of complications grows dramatically. A fractured hip, for example, is a major injury for a senior, and often leads to deteriorating health and increasing illness.

Seniors should avoid going out alone in icy conditions. If you must venture outdoors, wear sturdy shoes with non-skid soles to provide good traction. Make sure to salt the area around your home, or have someone salt it for you. If you use a cane, check it for winter-readiness before winter weather sets in. This includes making sure the tip is not worn down, and that it fits well in your hand.

Shoveling Injuries

Shoveling snow, especially deep or frozen snow, is equivalent to intense exercise. Going out to shovel without preparing can be just as dangerous as launching an extreme workout without first warming up. Seniors should walk or jog in place for 5–10 minutes before beginning to shovel snow. Dressing in layers helps you stay warm at the beginning, and allows you to shed layers as the strenuous work warms you up. Make sure to take breaks often, going inside to warm up and let your heart rate settle. In addition, drinking enough water before and during the shoveling session is crucial. Dehydration can happen even in the winter, so make sure you stay hydrated.

Hypothermia

Seniors are more susceptible to hypothermia than younger people, due to a variety of factors. Certain illnesses, reduced body fat, and slower circulation all contribute to the body’s decreased ability to stay warm. Indoors, keep the thermostat set no lower than 68˚F, with the ideal temperature falling around 70˚F. If your home is drafty or chilly, wear an extra sweater and thick socks.

Outdoors, make sure to bundle up warmly in layers. Wear a heavy coat, warm socks and gloves, and boots if conditions are snowy or slushy. Use earmuffs or a hat to keep your ears warm, and wrap a scarf around your mouth to protect your lungs.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

There’s nothing cozier than turning up the heat on a freezing winter evening. But if you use any type of gas heating system, you must have a carbon monoxide detector installed. Test your carbon monoxide detector periodically to ensure it’s active. A model that plugs into an outlet with a battery backup is a good idea for seniors who may forget to check the batteries.

If your carbon monoxide alarm goes off, call the fire department and leave the house immediately.

Fire Hazards and Burns

If you are using any sort of electrical heater or blanket, read the instructions carefully. Some of these products will overheat and cause a fire when kept on for a long time. Newer electric blankets come with built-in sensors to prevent overheating and fires, but older models—generally manufactured before 2001—do not have these safety mechanisms.

Keep clothing and fabrics away from any heating elements or open flames, and use caution around any heating source.

Power Outages

While you should always be prepared for blackouts, you need to be extra-prepared during the winter. Save a stash of warm blankets and sweaters in an easy-to reach place to keep yourself warm if you lose power during a winter storm. Make sure you have flashlights easily accessible and non-perishable food to sustain you while the power is out.

Social Isolation

During the winter months, seniors are less likely to leave home. The resulting social isolation, together with reduced Vitamin D, can cause loneliness and depression in many elderly people. Be there for your loved one, drop by to visit, and call them on the phone daily. Consider arranging a rotation of friends and relatives to visit during the cold winter months to alleviate some of the loneliness.

 

If you feel your loved one is not safe alone during the winter, it may be time to consider alternative options, such as a home-health aide or an assisted living facility.

To read more about staying safe through the cold winter months, check out Regency Nursing and Rehab's winter safety pamphlet here.

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