The winter can be hard for seniors to enjoy. The cold, snow and ice can keep many people cooped up indoors and make them less active. Or, for those brave souls who do venture outside, there can be an increased risk of falls and other injuries related to the cold temperatures. With that in mind, here are some quick tips for non-snowbirds to get through the winter with minimal risk to life and limb.
1) Take steps to stay active indoors so you don't lose strength and balance.
It can be hard for seniors to get enough exercise in the winter months. Indoor exercises, like yoga, stretching and light-to-moderate free weight lifting can help you stay toned and trimmed.
You could try walking in place while watching TV, too, to get both aerobic and isometric exercise. Try alternating your pace— 20 to 30 seconds at a power-walking pace, followed by a minute of a steady, regular pace, then back up to power-walk for a minute, then down to an exaggeratedly slow, deliberate series of steps (holding as steadily as possible, or holding onto a handrail for support) for about a minute, before resuming a steady walking rhythm. Repeat that sequence several times over a period of 20 minutes.
2) Dress for the weather.
When you do go out in the snow and ice, make sure to cover up well. Wear a warm stocking cap that can be pulled down over your ears, or try a cap with ear flaps. They might look goofy, but they'll keep you warmer.
Get a down-lined heavy winter coat with a down-lined hood. Many winter coats also have snap-over mouth covers, which are handy when a bitter wind kicks up. Or, wear a fleece scarf over your mouth and nose. Don't go for looks; go for protection.
Make sure you wear an extra pair of socks and insulated, all-dry boots with non-slip soles. If you use a walker or a cane, make sure the contact surface and the handle are covered in a non-slip coating, or with easy-grip rubber.
3) Take safety precautions— inside and out.
With wet and icy conditions outside, the winter is a prime season for serious, fall-related injuries among older people. Make sure that your home has the right anti-fall measures in place this winter.
- Add non-slip traction strips to front porches and front steps (especially on concrete or stone).
- Tighten up or install sturdy handrails.
- Call a contractor about resurfacing your walkways and your driveway with a non-slip texture.
- Keep plenty of road salt or ice melt on hand to put down just before predicted snow storms or ice-over conditions are expected to start.
- If you have a heart condition or severe arthritis, don't try to shovel your own snow. Pay a service or neighborhood to shovel your driveway and walkways out.
Remember, shoes, boots and galoshes are often wet when you come back inside in the winter. Make sure you have a handy chair in the foyer where you can stop and take them off as soon as you come in. Put down non-slip mats in your entryways and in your hallways and consider installing handrails in your hallways, just in case.
4) Recognize the signs of serious cold-related health concerns and know how to deal with them.
Going out into the snow and cold, if you aren't dressed appropriately for it, can put you at risk for hypothermia (low core body temperature) and frostbite (lack of circulation to an extremity cause by cold-induced blood vessel constriction). Make sure that you dress warmly and cover up as much exposed skin area as you possibly can before going outside.
Hypothermia will often present as uncontrolled shivering, memory loss or confusion and drowsiness. If someone you know begins to show these signs while outside, go indoors immediately and take the person's temperature. If it is near or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, call emergency services.
While you wait for help to arrive, strip off any wet clothing the person is wearing and wrap him or her in warm, dry blankets— especially the midsection, over the vital organs.
If he or she can drink, give a warm beverage like tea, coffee, or instant cocoa, but do not, under any circumstances, give an alcoholic beverage. Alcohol does not help a person's body temperature rise— that's an old wives' tale. In fact, it causes blood to rush away from the core, vital organs, where a person suffering hypothermia needs it the most.
Frostbite will result in numbness and a pale color in the skin over the affected area (usually toes, fingers, earlobes and nose are the first to become frostbitten). The skin may feel unusually firm or waxy. If this occurs, get inside immediately.
Do not rub or massage a frostbitten area. Instead, use a warm (not hot) water soak to raise the temperature in the affected area. Don't use an electric blanket or heating pad to warm the area— the skin there is numb, so you won't be able to tell if you're being burned or scalded.
If toes or feet are frostbitten, try not to walk on them. Call emergency services, then lay flat on your back, keeping your legs level with your heart, so that blood can more easily circulate to your feet while you wait for help to arrive.
Winter doesn't have to be a dangerous time for seniors.
Stay active, exercise indoors or at the gym and take proper safety precautions this winter. Or, if living independently is getting increasingly hard for you to manage in the winter, consider moving into a retirement community where you can socialize, exercise and get the assistance you require without sacrificing your privacy. In the meantime, follow these simple tips so that you'll still be safe and spry come springtime!