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Winter Health and Safety Tips for the Elderly

Author:   Peter Sedesse MD

Winter and Hypothermia

Winter is an especially dangerous time for elderly people living in areas that see a major change in temperature. While the obvious risks include things directly related to the drop in temperature, there are also many other occurrences that could lead to illness or injury to an older person.

The most direct risk is simply that of hypothermia and frostbite. Because many older individuals have poor circulation, especially in the extremities, it is important that hands and feet are always covered with loose, dry clothing, preferably in layers. Hypothermia occurs when the core temperature of the body drops and results in the obvious signs of shivering and pale skin and lips. But the more important signs that hypothermia is occurring is a decrease in pulse and breathing rates. The individual will also feel extremely tired and weak. It is important to always make sure the hands, neck and head of an elderly person are covered before they venture out into cold weather.

Fires and other dangers related to heating sources

Another frequently overlooked risk for the elderly during winter is that of heating sources. There are two major risks with heating the home, they are the increased chance of fires, and the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Fireplaces, kerosene heaters, and even electric blankets all pose a risk of starting a fire if they are not in proper working order or they are used incorrectly. Make sure all fireplaces and furnaces are inspected or cleaned each year. Make sure kerosene or other space heaters are always positioned well away from any furniture, especially curtains and bed clothing, which are two items that cause many fires. Carbon monoxide is produced when fires burn without an adequate supply of oxygen. Make sure any heating equipment is functioning properly and a carbon monoxide detector is located near any heating source that uses a fire, especially in small rooms or rooms with low ventilation.

Falls and Slips caused by ice

A major risk for the elderly during winter is that of falls. The obvious culprit would be icy sidewalks. Make sure sidewalks are cleared and salted as needed. Another dangerous area is the flooring just inside the front door, which can become wet and slippery as snow is accidentally brought into the house and melts. Finally, it is important to remember that many falls happen because of poor vision and bad lighting. During wintertime, there are more nighttime hours, and even during daytime, the amount of light entering windows is reduced. Make sure all areas of the house have proper lighting when limited light is entering through windows.

Strenuous Activity like Snow Shoveling

Another risk for the elderly during winter is that of cardiac arrest from overexercise. Activities such as shoveling snow, pushing a snow-blower or even carrying bags of salt can create unnecessary stress on the muscles of the heart. If another individual is not available to perform those tasks, make sure to take it easy and be aware of the risks. Dehydration is also a risk while working outside in the winter. Drinking plenty of fluids is important not only for avoiding dehydration, but also for improving circulation, which can prevent frostbite and hypothermia.

Colds, the Flu and Immunizations for the Elderly

Finally, winter also will bring colds and the flu. It is important for the elderly to have a flu vaccination before flu season begins each year. Normal good health practices also can help prevent or diminish the effects of the common cold. These include eating healthy, including lots of vitamin C and zinc, washing hands frequently and avoiding individuals who are already sick.

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