Winter can bring many healthcare challenges for older people, especially those with mobility issues or those who are homebound. Ellen McCabe, director of professional education for HopeHealth, a non-profit healthcare organization providing medical care, care management, and support services in eastern Massachusetts, knows the dangers associated with winter weather all too well. “There are emotional risks, such as isolation from friends and community, and also physical risks, such as falls,” McCabe says. “Risks can be minimized if some basic guidelines are followed, making winter an enjoyable time of year for us all.”
Here are 10 tips for keeping aging loved ones safe and healthy during the winter months.
1. Stock emergency resources in their homes. “Emergency kits must be easily accessible and should include water, flashlight, batteries, radio, and blankets,” McCabe says. “Seniors should have at least a seven-day supply of prescription medications and a three-day supply of non-perishable food and water on hand.”
2. Watch the temperature. “For elders, there are significant risks of being too cold, which include dehydration,” she says. “People with cardiac issues tend to get colder faster. Make sure the home is properly insulated and windows are caulked to prevent drafts. Thermostats should be set to 68 degrees to prevent hypothermia and prevent pipes from freezing.”
3. Identify and eliminate fall risks (see more on this below). “This is a huge issue for seniors and most do not know they are at risk for falls, especially during the winter. Often they will take off their wet boots when they get home and walk around the house in stockings, which often leads to slipping,” McCabe says. “Create slip-proof paths and make sure they wear shoes or slippers that grip. Keep driveways and walkways clear of snow. Many schools offer programs where student volunteers can help shovel and salt. The Snow Crew is one local organization that provides such volunteers.”
4. Eliminate potential fire risks. “Fires often start from things like overheating electric blankets or space heaters. Candles are always a risk, as well as drying Christmas trees,” she says. “Make sure smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are stocked with fresh batteries and are in good working order, and fire extinguishers are readily available near stoves and fireplaces.”
5. Encourage them to stay active and try safe exercises at home. “Many elderly feel lonely or inactive during this time of year but there are programs available to help. Many libraries deliver books and movies. Churches offer a visitation program of volunteers who provide companionship to housebound parishioners,” McCabe says. “Contact your local senior center for information on upcoming community activities. The Massachusetts Office of Elder Affairs website lists of all senior centers in the state.”
6. Practice safety precautions in the car. “If your elderly loved one is still driving, be sure they have emergency snow supplies in their car, including heating packs, kitty litter or sand, emergency flares and snow scrapers/brushes, water and blankets, as well as a car phone charger,” McCabe says. “Make sure to keep the gas tank full. Ask your elder to let you know their destination, route and expected time of arrival before they leave the house.”
7. Keep a keen eye on their nutrition. “A balanced diet becomes even more crucial during the winter when we are less active, at risk of catching colds and lacking vitamin D. Be sure your loved one is getting balanced meals that incorporate vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Keep extra food on hand in the freezer as well as bottled or canned fruit juices and non-fat milk powder. Meals on Wheels delivers affordable hot, nutritious foods daily.”
8. Establish a plan for winter emergencies. “If power is lost, do you and your elder know where they will go and what they will need? Have an emergency bag packed with a change of clothing and all medical and care necessities,” McCabe says. “Have a carrier ready in case pets need to be transported with them. Go to www.redcross.org to find shelters open in your area.”
9. Provide your elder with a cell phone that is easy to use. “Make sure the cell phone is always charged and has emergency contact numbers pre-programmed,” she says. “Ensure your elder has practiced using the dialing feature. Just Google ‘senior-friendly cell phone’ to see the range of options available with big buttons, easy viewing, and long-lasting batteries.”
10. Dress smart for cold weather. “It’s a good idea for seniors to get out for some fresh air when possible,” McCabe says. “Layered loose-fitting clothing and water-proof gloves or mittens are best. Wearing a hat protects against heat loss, as close to half of body heat is lost through the head.”
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