I work in a community hospital that serves a large population of seniors. Every winter our emergency department fills up with older adults who’ve had some type of weather related incident. From slip and fall accidents on snow and ice to frostbite, hypothermia and even back injuries from shoveling snow, it is obvious winter is tough on older adults.
My colleagues and I are trying to be proactive in helping area seniors avoid wintertime injuries and illnesses. We would like to assemble a few resources for family caregivers to use when trying to prevent their senior loved ones from ending up in our ER.
Can you help?
Resources to Keep Older Adults Safe during the Winter
Winter can be a beautiful time of year in the New England states! But ice, snow, and falling temperatures do present real challenges for seniors. Accidents, injuries and illnesses are a few of the dangers winter brings.
We recommend a proactive approach to sharing wintertime precautions with seniors and their families is especially important. And it begins with understanding the most common winter safety risks older adults face.
Common challenges older adults encounter in the winter include:
- Slip and fall injuries due to a combination of poor balance and slippery weather conditions
- Health conditions that make it hard to feel warm
- Medical emergencies that are caused by shoveling snow
- Home hazards that occur indoors such as burns from a space heater or carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace or gas fireplace
Addressing 4 Common Winter Safety Issues for Seniors
#1: Reducing the Risk for Slip and Fall Injuries in the Winter
The National Institute on Aging says that more than 1.6 million seniors end up in an emergency room due to fall-related injuries each year. And when New England weather conditions create slick walkways and parking lots, it increases an older adult’s risk for taking a tumble.
Families can help their senior loved ones avoid becoming a statistic by:
- Clear the Way. Make arrangements to ensure your walkways and driveways remain clear of ice and snow. Your local agency on aging may be able to provide resources if needed.
- Stay Strong. Encouraging older family members to talk with their primary care physician about senior-friendly forms of exercise they can engage in throughout the year. This can help them maintain muscle strength and balance which, in turn, reduces their risk for falls.
- Proper Winter Footwear. Making sure your senior loved one has proper footwear. Sturdy boots with good traction and thick, non-skid soles are important for preventing falls.
- Walk Like a Penguin. Taking small, sturdy steps and walking like a penguin is another winter safety tip. Let your family member know it’s okay to look silly and take their time while walking outdoors.
- Emergency Pendant. Suggesting the use of an emergency alert pendant. These devices can be lifesaving for older adults who live or travel around town alone.
#2: Help Senior Loved Ones Stay Warm
Because they sometimes have slower circulation, seniors are more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia. Medical conditions like a stroke and arthritis can also contribute, making it harder for a senior to feel warm no matter what the temperature. An older adult becomes accustomed to always feeling cold and may underestimate the impact winter weather is having on their health.
- Encourage seniors to set their thermostat no lower 68 degrees. Many try to cut heating expenses by keeping it lower.
- Make sure your loved one has plenty of cozy outdoor gear, including mittens, scarves, sweaters, hats, and thermals. Dressing in layers is best.
#3: Snow Shoveling and Older Adults
Shoveling snow to clear driveways and sidewalks is something almost everyone who lives in a cold weather climate dreads about winter. But many misjudge just how taxing this type of physical activity can be. Snow shoveling sends more than 11,000 people to emergency rooms every year.
Much of this is due to the fact that people who aren’t used to heavy exertion often attempt to tackle this task on their own. But even using a snow blower to push snow can be dangerous to those who aren’t physically active on a regular basis.
Be sure older family members discuss snow shoveling safety with their physician before they head out. If their doctor approves, there are still common-sense precautions they should take:
- Do stretching exercises to warm up muscles
- Take frequent breaks to rest and rehydrate
- Use a smaller shovel to avoid trying to move too much snow at once
- Keep a cell phone in a coat pocket in case of emergency
#4: Keep Seniors Safe at Home
It’s also important for families to evaluate their loved one’s home for potential fire and carbon monoxide risks. The National Fire Protection Association says that after age 65, adults are twice as likely to be injured in a fire.
Keep them safe with these few NFPA recommendations:
- Checking to be sure their smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order.
- Making certain that space heaters are being used according to directions, including keeping curtains, bedding, and furniture at least three feet away.
- Developing and practicing an evacuation plan for use in case of fire.
While this can seem like an overwhelming amount of information, these suggestions can all be easily implemented by families.
Until next time,