Throughout the winter months, snow, ice and cold temperatures can make life difficult for anyone—especially our aging loved ones.
Seniors run a higher risk of health problems and injuries related to the freezing weather including hypothermia, frostbite, and falls in ice and snow. Even more, underlying issues related to mental and physical health can also affect seniors this time of year.
Below, we discuss several winter health concerns and back them up with senior safety tips you should keep in mind to help your aging loved ones.
Anyone living in the Northeast Ohio area learns to check the forecast more frequently during the winter months. Snow, ice and frigid conditions can force us to stay home or increase the hazards faced outdoors.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Seniors are at a higher risk to frostbite and hypothermia than younger adults because their bodies regulate heat less efficiently. To help prevent hypothermia, seniors should stay inside as much as possible and keep the house at 65°F or above. If you suspect hypothermia, check your aging loved one’s temperature and seek immediate care if it reads below 96°F.
Slips and Falls
These can occur anytime the weather is freezing outside, even if the ice is not visible. When outdoors, encourage your aging loved one to wear proper footwear and assist them when walking on driveways, paths or sidewalks. If possible, avoid venturing outside and offer to handle any outdoor chores for them, such as shoveling the driveway or retrieving the mail.
>>>Related Resource: Room-by-Room Home Safety Guide for Seniors Living Alone
Research shows Ohio is among one of the five deadliest states for winter driving. Knowing this, it’s important to keep yourself and seniors safe by only driving in icy or snowy conditions when absolutely necessary. And before it becomes too frightful outside, get the car prepped for winter by refilling antifreeze, checking the tires and, if necessary, replacing the windshield wipers.
In addition to the physical safety of seniors during winter months, physical health should be carefully considered and monitored.
Influenza strains thrive more easily under cold, dry conditions making peak flu season from December to February. To prepare, healthy seniors should look to get vaccinated early during flu season. If you suspect the flu, some warning signs include difficulty breathing, chest or abdomen pain, sudden dizziness, and/or persistent vomiting.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the human population is faced with another form of illness to be aware of during the winter months. Studies show a flurry of new COVID-19 variants could gain traction globally and cause a winter surge. Your aging loved one can avoid this winter health concern by staying home when possible, getting vaccinated and masking up when in large settings.
Fires and Carbon Monoxide
To stay warm, many homes may use a fireplace or other heating source using natural gas or other fuels. Without proper ventilation, these can leak dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide. Watch your aging loved one for headaches, weakness, nausea, dizziness, confusion or blurred vision. You can also prepare their home for the winter by having an inspector check your senior’s home ventilation, assess smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and make sure space heaters are at least three feet from anything flammable.
Mental health during the winter months is something that deserves greater attention across all age groups, especially seniors. Many concerns stem from the dark, short and cold days of winter.
Dementia and Sundowning
Sundowners Syndrome—which is marked by increased anger, agitation, confusion and memory loss in the evening for seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease—can intensify during the early dark hours. Creating a more quiet, relaxing environment in the evening can help lessen this condition for your aging loved one.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
A unique form of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is caused by a decrease in natural light, disrupted body clock and causes an imbalance of hormones. The best way to avoid SAD for your aging loved one is to let more light into their home, or turn to light therapy, which uses full-spectrum lights you can purchase in stores.
Woven into each of these winter mental health concerns is senior and social isolation. Social isolation can exacerbate dementia or accelerate the effect of SAD. Make sure to spend as much time as possible with your aging loved one or organize outings for them with other friends and family members when weather permits.
>>>Related Resource: 5 Ways Caregivers Can Help Combat Senior Isolation
Get Access to More Senior-Specific Resources
Winter safety is just one of the many important responsibilities you’re tasked with as a family caregiver. No matter where you are in your caregiving journey, download our caregiver guide for tips on providing the highest quality of comfort and care for your loved one.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2019, and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Creates personalized and meaningful celebration of life services. Heidi’s calling is helping families pay tribute to their loved ones in meaningful ways. As a lifelong Lorain County resident, she has been involved with her hometown church, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and schools. Proudly serving Busch families since 2012.