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Winter Hazards for Seniors

As much as many people look forward to the winter holidays, this season can be downright dangerous for senior citizens. This is especially the case when the climate is cold enough for there to be snow, ice and freezing temperatures throughout most of the winter. So as you prepare for the winter season, pay close attention to the health and safety of your elderly loved ones, and get to know some of the most common winter hazards for seniors.

Ice and Snow

The colder weather of this season is among the biggest winter hazards for seniors. Whether it snows often in your area or just a few times per winter, it’s important to help your older loved ones take precautions when walking or driving. In fact, seniors should generally avoid driving when it’s snowing or when it’s icy on the road. If it’s not possible to avoid driving altogether, drivers should remember to install snow tires on their car, drive slowly and keep blankets in the vehicle in case they get stranded in the cold.

Even walking in the winter can be dangerous. Roads and sidewalks are often icy, and even a minor fall can lead to a broken hip, skull fracture or other major injuries. If an elderly relative wants to walk, make sure he or she is wearing shoes with lots of traction. And it may be best to walk with him or her to help prevent falls, or at least ensure someone is there in case a fall does occur and medical help is necessary.

Hypothermia

Another issue with walking outside in the winter is hypothermia. This can occur when the body temperature gets below 95 degrees. Seniors are especially prone to this condition because they often have reduced mobility, less body fat and a harder time sensing the temperature. This can lead to symptoms that include cold skin, shivering, confusion, weakness, sleepiness, slow heart rate, and trouble breathing.

You can help seniors avoid hypothermia by ensuring they dress appropriately for the winter. This means wearing layers of warm clothes, plus a hat, scarf and closed-toed shoes. If it’s snowing or raining, seniors should wear a waterproof jacket. And if it’s supposed to be colder than usual, or if there will be heavy, cold winds, seniors should stay inside rather than venturing out into the cold.

A Cold Home

Not all winter hazards for seniors are outside. Some are inside the home, with one issue being very cold temperatures inside. Some elderly people try to save money by not running the heater, which can be a mistake when it’s cold outside. If the temperature in the house is about 65 degrees, it might be too cold.

So it’s best to run the heater to ensure the home stays around 68 to 70 degrees. If that’s not possible, make sure your elderly relative is dressed warmly, with access to robes, long underwear, socks, and slippers. You can also suggest that he or she curl up with warm blankets when watching TV or reading a book, as these steps can help them avoid discomfort and even hypothermia.

The Flu

Among the most common winter hazards for seniors is the flu. While younger adults can typically fight off this illness, older adults tend to have a hard time with it. In fact, it can easily turn into pneumonia and other health issues.

Seniors can reduce their odds of getting the flu by getting a flu shot every year, preferably early in the season. Avoiding contact with sick people and washing hands often can also help keep flu and other illnesses at bay.

Depression

Many seniors are susceptible to becoming depressed in the winter due to seasonal affective disorder. After all, the winter tends to be darker than most other seasons, especially in northern states where the day is shortest. And not getting enough light can negatively affect anyone’s mood and energy levels. It can even cause physical problems to feel worse, meaning that seniors battling health conditions may be in more pain than usual.

You can prevent seasonal affective disorder by ensuring your loved one gets enough sunlight in the winter. This can be hard, but not impossible. Just open the window coverings during the day to get natural light, and encourage walks in the day—with the proper warm clothing, of course. Sunlight can increase vitamin D levels, which will reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. You can also offer your older relative vitamin D supplements, or just encourage him or her to eat foods fortified with this vitamin, including whole grains, milk, salmon and tuna.

Sundowners Syndrome

Another problem with less daylight is sundowners syndrome, which causes certain symptoms in seniors once the sun starts to go down. In most cases, this only happens to people who have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. Seniors who struggle with this might feel confused, angry, irritable and unable to recall memories once the sun begins to go down every day.

This issue gets worse when there’s less daylight since the body’s internal clock is disrupted when it’s darker than usual. Some ways you can prevent this issue—or at least reduce the symptoms—include sticking to a routine every day, bringing in lots of daylight and creating a relaxing environment at nighttime.

There are several winter hazards for seniors that you should look for in any loved ones who are elderly. Fortunately, it’s possible to prevent most of these issues with some planning on the part of the senior’s main caretaker.

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