Winter Safety Tips for Seniors

by | Oct 23, 2018


8 Ways to Help Older Adults in the Wintertime [1] [2]

It’s very important to protect the safety of older adults during the winter as the elderly are more at-risk for falls and isolation from family and friends.  The following are tips to help keep older adults safe during the snowy season.

  • Store plenty of emergency resources in their home
    • These resources can be in the form of an emergency kit that is easily accessible.  Kits should include water, flashlights, batteries, radio, blankets, a week’s worth (seven day) supply of prescription medications, and a three day supply of food and water.    
  • Know winter emergency plans
    • Be fluent in your agency’s emergency plan for winter weather.  
  • Keep a close eye on the temperature
    • Older adults have a higher risk of health complications caused by the cold weather.  Some of these risks include dehydration and hyperthermia (see below for more detail).  To ensure that your client isn’t cold, make sure that their home is insulated properly and that there is no chance of a cold draft traveling into the house.  In addition, thermostats should be set to a comfortable temperature, 68 degrees (Fahrenheit) is typically a good temperature. This will also help prevent pipes from freezing.
  • Eliminate fall risks
    • There are plenty of opportunities for seniors to fall in the wintertime.  For example, walking around in wet boots either outside or inside can lead to slipping, as does walking around in socks indoors.  Make sure your client wears proper footwear that has grips on the bottoms. Clear driveways, walkways, and paths of snow. If you cannot clear the snow yourself, many seniors centers and schools offer volunteers to shovel pathways.  Click here for more information about fall prevention.
  • Eliminate fire risks
    • Even though the temperature is cold, there is still a risk of fire in a client’s home.  For instance, overheating space heaters or electric blankets as well as drying Christmas trees and candles are common causes of home fires during the winter.  Be sure that the client’s smoke alarms are working properly and that fire extinguishers are accessible near fireplaces.
  • Help prevent and alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder
    • See below for more detail.
  • Monitor nutrition
    • A nutritious and balanced diet is very significant during the winter.  Less activity, less vitamin D, and higher risk for catching colds can be helped with a balanced diet.  Make sure your client is eating plenty of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables.
  • Wear proper clothing for cold weather
    • If your client needs to go outside, make sure they are properly clothed.  Have your client wear two to three thin layers of loose-fitting clothing. This is better and warmer than wearing one layer of thick clothing.  Your client should also wear hats, gloves/mittens, a winter coat, and a scarf. Moreover, keep your client dry. Wearing wet clothing of any kind can chill  the body quickly. In regard to footwear, have your client wear shoes with sturdy grips on the bottoms to prevent slipping.

Common Winter Health Risks for Seniors [2]

Seniors are at a higher risk for health related complications caused by the winter weather.  Check with your client’s doctor to create an emergency plan if any of these complications occur.

  • Hypothermia
    • Hypothermia is the opposite of hyperthermia.  Hypothermia occurs when body temperature has fallen below 95 degrees Fahrenheit and cannot create enough energy to stay warm.  Older adults are at a higher risk of hypothermia as they have a decreased ability to sense changes in temperature.
    • Symptoms of hypothermia include:
      • Shivering
      • Cold skin
      • Skin is pale or ashy
      • Slower coordinations or reactions
      • Mental confusion
      • Slowed breathing or heart rate
      • Sleepiness
      • Weakness
    • It is important to note that it is dangerous to only rely on shivering as a warning sign of hypothermia.  The elderly typically shiver less, or not at all.
    • If you think your client has hypothermia, call 911 immediately.
  • Frostbite
    • Frostbite inflicts damage to the skin and bone.  Common areas that are affected by frostbite include the nose, ears, chin, fingers, cheeks, and toes.  If severe, frostbite can lead to a loss of limbs. However, frostbite can be prevented by keeping the body warm and covered when outside.  The symptoms of frostbite include:
      • Skin that is white, ashy, grayish-yellow, hard or waxy, or numb.
    • If you think your client has frostbite, call 911 immediately.  If they appear to have frostbite while outside, take them inside immediately as well.  Note that someone with frostbite can also have hypothermia.
  • Lung spasms
    • Lung spasms “…can occur in seniors with respiratory conditions, including asthma and COPD.”[2]  These conditions can make senior lungs more sensitive to cold air, causing the spasms.  Encourage your client to wear a face or ski mask to help prevent this.
  • Influenza (flu) and pneumonia
    • The flu can lead to pneumonia, both of which are particularly dangerous for older adults.  For information on flu prevention and tips, click here.
  • Certain preexisting health conditions in seniors can also become heightened with the cold weather.  For instance, heart attacks and high blood pressure are more common as the cold increases blood pressure and strains the heart.  Although it is unclear why, joint pain is more frequent in the winter as well. For at-home tips to manage joint pain, click here and here.

Tips To Prevent and Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) [2][3] 

Seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD) is “…a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons…sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”[3]  There are plenty of treatments for alleviating SAD such as the following, but be sure to check in with your client’s doctor regarding their best treatment.

  • Light exposure
    • One of the main causes of SAD is the lack of light during the winter months.  However, light therapy can lessen or prevent the symptoms of SAD. Talk with your client’s doctor about which form of light therapy would be best for them.  In addition, if your client goes outside to get sunlight, make sure that you have taken all of the proper winter safety precautions.
  • Diet
    • Diet can also affect the symptoms of SAD.  Consuming processed foods decreases energy and can lead to depression and anxiety, all of which are heightened with SAD.  Have your client eat a cleaner, nutritious diet. See if you can find an indoor farmers’ market to get fresh produce.
  • Socialization
    • Socialization in the winter months can be strained, especially for older adults.  Spending time with family and friends can greatly improve the mood of someone with SAD.  There are also local opportunities to increase socialization during the winter. For instance, some libraries deliver books and movies to older adults and senior centers have plenty of fun community activities.    

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