10 Lifesaving Winter Safety Tips for Older Adults
Taking these precautions will help keep your loved ones safe
(This article ran previously on Caring.com.)
As people get older, they’re increasingly at risk for dying from extreme cold or winter-weather events, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — accounting for a significant portion of the hundreds of Americans who die each year as a result of winter weather.
“They are less likely to sense cold as they get older, and they don’t shiver as much as younger people, so they can’t generate as much heat,” explains geriatrician Dr. Donald Courtney, interim chair of the University of Oklahoma’s geriatrics department. Other factors, such as thinning skin and, in some cases, less body fat, means a higher risk of frostbite, he adds.
We talked to experts and compiled 10 potentially lifesaving winter safety tips for older adults:
1. Stock Up
Courtney recommends stocking up for your aging parent with at least seven days of food and water when a winter storm is on the way. It’s a good idea to have foods (such as canned items), that don’t have to be refrigerated or cooked, in the event of a power outage.
Stash some cat litter. It can help your loved one gain traction on icy surfaces. Meredith Harris, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, recommends older adults carry a small bag with a mix of cat litter and salt to spread on icy steps and walkways. It's good to keep some in the car, too.
Get absorbent pads for pets. Potty pads can be helpful for a dog or other pet who usually has to be walked outdoors for toileting.
Skip the alcohol. Dr. Neal Sawlani, a structural heart cardiologist at Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago, says that while alcohol might feel warming as one drinks it, it actually makes the body more vulnerable to the cold. If your loved one does drink alcohol, ask him or her only to do so if planning to stay indoors.
2. Build Time in the Schedule
Your aging loved ones will be safer it they can take their time when leaving the house or any building. The more time someone has, the easier it is to pay attention to the environment. “I usually tell people that I am working with, whether they are in the house or when they are outside, to wait and stop and look at where they are before they even start moving,” says Harris.
This is also important if your loved one is driving.
3. Stay Indoors
Even the most active, physically fit older adult may have to stay indoors when temperatures are dropping as fast as the snow. Unfortunately, this might mean canceling appointments.
The flipside to this advice is knowing when to leave. If the power goes out for any reason and doesn’t come back on in a couple of hours, it’s time to get your loved one to a warmer location, says Courtney, who adds that aging adults should not rely on the oven to warm the house.
4. Check the House and Car
Wrap exposed pipes and keep faucets at a slow drip in order to prevent burst pipes. Courtney recommends an indoor temperature of around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and advises older adults not to sit next to drafty windows or doors, which can increase the risk of hypothermia.
Check outside the house to make sure that walkways are clear, lighting is bright and any railings are secure. While you’re checking around the house, make sure space heaters are in working order and are not close to draperies or upholstery, says Courtney.
Additionally, winterize the car. “Make sure [the] car is in good driving condition by checking the tire treads or having winter tires put on,” advises Rachel Barakat, director of marketing and public relations at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Take this time to check on the levels of antifreeze, how well your loved one’s wiper blades are working and whether he or she hasecold weather supplies in the car, including jumper cables, a blanket and flares.
5. Watch the Weather Reports
Temperature and precipitation can change dramatically. Make sure your loved ones have working thermometers indoors and out or that they can check the weather using an app or other online device, and plan accordingly.
6. Get Help Checking In
Check in on aging loved ones at least twice a day if they’re home alone during winter weather. An alternative is to encourage them and their friends to stay in touch by phone or email through the worst of the weather. Harris recommends that older adults always carry their cell phone or an emergency response call device and let someone know when they leave and return.
7. Dress in Layers
Make sure your loved one has a warm wardrobe available. Layering up will keep him or her warm. Noah Greenspan, a Manhattan-based physical therapist who focuses on heart and lung health, emphasizes the importance of keeping hands, feet and heads warm, using hand and foot warming inserts as needed.
Layers should take into account that the cold, dry air can irritate respiratory conditions. Greenspan recommends covering the nose and mouth with a scarf or a breath warmer (cold weather masks for people with COPD or asthma) to keep warm air in.
8. Walk on Spikes
Icy surfaces are a fall risk, so you’ll want to make sure your loved ones have safeguards in place to avoid slipping and falling. If they have to go out on icy surfaces, make sure they have a bag of mixed salt and cat litter to spread on the ground.
Ice traction spikes that can be attached to shoes, too. And, of course, make sure your loved ones have waterproof shoes that will keep their feet warm and provide a good grip as they walk.
If your loved one uses a cane or walking stick, put a spike on the bottom of it. There are a variety of attachments or prongs available online. Another alternative is to sharpen the end of a cane and use that cane only in cold, icy weather.
Or replace your loved one's cane with a trekking pole designed for cold weather walks.
Hire someone to shovel, too. “Some snow is so wet and heavy that it can be dangerous for certain individuals,” says Sawlani. Combined with cold weather, this increases the risk of heart attack, he says. Ask a neighbor to help out or hire someone else to do it if possible.
9. Prevent Infections
Cold weather doesn’t make people sick; exposure to bacteria and viruses does, says Greenspan, author of Ultimate Pulmonary Wellness. However, older bodies have to work harder to fight infection, so it’s important your loved one avoids people who are sick, washes hands frequently and uses wipes to clean surfaces other people might have touched.
10. Check on Medications
Courtney also recommends stocking up on medications if a storm is possible. This is a good time to review your loved one's medications to understand how they might interact with cold-weather situations. For example, if he or she has a respiratory condition, make sure medications are up to date and verify if any should be taken before going out into cold weather in ords' to keep breathing smooth. You should also find out whether your loved ones' medications make them more vulnerable to cold temperatures.
When it comes to protecting against the cold, all the experts seem to agree on one tip: Older adults need to pay attention to their body. If your loved ones are not feeling top-notch, they should stay indoors. If they do go outside, but start to notice their bodies are feeling different — particularly if they're becoming disoriented or confused, their fingers or toes are hurting or numb or they feel pressure or pain in their chest — they should get indoors.
If you suspect you or your loved one is having a heart attack or experiencing hypothermia, call 911.