Don’t let down your guard. Follow these winter safety tips for seniors, whether the weather is bitter or mild.
Winter Safety Tip #1: Indoors & Out, Dress in Layers
Guard against hypothermia, even when it’s unseasonably mild. Many seniors experience changes to their sensory and circulatory systems. They don’t realize they’re chilled. If Mom lives with Alzheimer’s, she may not be able to tell you she’s uncomfortable.
If you plan an outing when the wind chill is below 70o F, have Mom wear a jacket. Layer it over a sweater and blouse or T-shirt. All layers should be loose fitting, trapping pockets of warm air between them. (Tight clothing cuts down on blood circulation, which leads to loss of body heat.)
If the wind chill is below 60o F, swap that jacket for a heavier coat, hat and gloves. And don’t forget the layers!
Strangely enough, Mom is at risk for hypothermia even when she’s indoors. She’s at serious risk if she has diabetes, arthritis, thyroid problems or Parkinson’s. Be vigilant if Mom or her residential facility keeps the temperature low to save energy. NEVER set the thermostat below 68oF. 1
If the house is cool, have Mom wear socks, slippers and a sweater. See that she throws on a blanket while sitting or sleeping.
“Look for the ‘umbles’—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles—these show that the cold is a problem.”2
Act quickly if you spot
- slurred speech,
- changes in behavior or appearance,
- slowed breathing or reaction time,
- poor movement control or stiffness,
- weak pulse or
- unusual sleepiness.
It’s time to call 911, especially if Mom’s body temperature won’t rise above 96o. Wrap her up so she’s warm and dry while you wait for help.
Winter Safety Tip #2: Stay Safe While Staying Warm
You’ve heard about the fire and carbon monoxide risks associated with space heaters. What about the dangers of heating pads and electric blankets? Warm baths and hot water bottles?
As we age, many of us suffer illnesses or injuries that irritate, compress or damage our nerves. Parts of our bodies grow numb. Uncontrolled diabetes is one of the chief culprits. Excess blood sugar builds up, damaging the walls of small blood vessels that feed nerve cells. “Left untreated, it’s possible to lose all feeling in affected limbs.”3
Is Dad using an electric pad or warm bath for heat therapy – or to fight a chill? Use caution, testing as you would to protect a baby’s sensitive skin. Dad may not feel the water or pad burning his skin. If he does, he may not be able to find the words to let you know.
Want a warmer bed for Dad? Try a strategy used by many hospitals. Warm sheets and blankets with your heating devices – BEFORE you drape them over Dad. (Then put the device away, out of sight, so he isn’t tempted to warm up on his own later.)
Winter Safety Tip #3: Mend the Cracks in Your Armor
Mom washes her hands to avoid seasonal colds and flu. The more she washes, the drier her skin. It grows dryer in the winter air, especially once the furnace is on. By January, Mom’s face, hands and feet are cracked and peeling. (Especially her hands – where the skin is thinner and has fewer oil glands.)4
Avoid painful chapping and bleeding. Help Mom moisturize early and often – before you’re treating serious fissures or eczema. Switch from light summer lotions to thicker, richer formulas.5 Apply at least 5 or 6 times a day, especially after washing.
Water is not dry skin’s friend, especially hot water. Neither are harsh soaps and shampoos. Skip the long, hot showers or baths. Use warm water and gentle soaps, then gently pat dry.
Other tips? When outside, keep Mom’s hands covered against the cold and wet. When inside, consider using a humidifier to combat chapped hands and lips as well as a stuffy nose. (But only if you can keep it free of mold and bacteria!)
Winter Safety Tip #4: The Rest of You Needs Hydrating, Too!
Drinking more water may not hydrate your skin. But it will keep the rest of you healthier.
Running errands, it’s easy to forget that Dad needs water on a cold, dry day. In winter, we’re less likely to keep fluids on hand. Keep bottled water in your emergency supplies.
Dad is more likely to lose track of his need for water than you are.6 His aging body struggles to conserve it. Medications or medical conditions (like diabetes) may increase his need for fluids. At the same time, he may not feel the intense thirst that once signaled dehydration. If Dad is coping with Alzheimer’s, he might forget to eat or drink unless you remind him.
If Dad seems dizzy or lightheaded – if he becomes irritable or confused – he could be getting dehydrated. Take a break. Stop for a light snack and frequent drinks of water. Call 911 if
- his confusion worsens,
- he can’t keep fluids down,
- he shows signs of low blood pressure, quickened breathing or rapid heartbeat or
- he suddenly becomes unusually fatigued or unresponsive.
Winter Safety Tip #5: Watch Out for Slips & Spills
When it sleets and snows, we’re on high alert against potential falls. We keep Mom inside until bad weather passes. When we venture out with her, we avoid slippery stairs or ramps, patches of black ice and pools of melted water.
But as soon as it’s sunny, we let down our guard.
Unfortunately, bitter winter weather leaves plenty of hazards in its wake. Mom can slip on the snowmelt and sand meant to prevent icy spills. She can trip on upturned edges of mats and rugs thrown down to cover slick, wet tiles.
Always focus on Mom’s footing.
- Be certain she’s wearing sensible, well-fitted shoes.
- See that she’s always on dry, solid ground.
- When she gets out of a car, ask her to swing both legs around and place both feet flat on the pavement. Tell her to hold you and/or the doorframe for support as she stands.
- Make sure she steps out of a doorway or off a curb heel first, over her center of gravity. Don’t let her step too far forward, where she’s less stable.
- Encourage Mom to walk like a penguin on your outings: flatfooted, with short steps.
1 “Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard.” National Institute on Aging. Web 19 January 2015.
3 Castro, M. Regina, MD. “Why are electric blankets discouraged for people who have diabetes? What’s the danger?” Mayo Clinic. Web 19 January 2015.
4 Davis, Susan. “10 Winter Skin Care Tips.” WebMD. Web 19 January 2015.
5 Levitt, Shelly. “Prevent and Soothe Chapped Winter Hands.” WebMD. Web 19 January 2015.
6 Mayo Clinic Staff. “Diseases & Conditions: Dehydration.” Mayo Clinic. Web January 20, 2015.