Winter is just around the corner, bringing with it pleasant thoughts of holiday celebrations, family gatherings and beautiful snow-covered landscapes. Unfortunately, the winter months can also be a difficult and dangerous time for anyone living in an area of the country where temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Older adults are especially susceptible to winter hazards such as icy streets, exposure to cold and inadequate home heating. If you are getting on in age, or are in some way disabled and living alone, following is these important winter safety tips will keep you and yours healthy and safe all winter long.
There are several important ways you can prepare for extreme cold weather and related emergencies BEFORE the cold weather hits:
- Have your heating system checked annually for possible problems. If your furnace breaks down during a cold spell, temperatures in your home could plummet in a matter of hours. Keep in mind that during peak breakdown periods, generally between December and February, it may be days before repairs can be made.
- Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms and on all floors of your home and MAKE SURE THEY’RE WORKING. Test them monthly and change their batteries twice a year. In the event of a gas leak, faulty heater or winter fire, they could save your life!
- Make sure you have plenty of warm blankets, candles and working flashlights on hand in case of a winter power outage that could leave you without heat or electricity.
- Maintain an emergency supply of canned goods, water and other necessities. A sudden winter storm could leave you unable to go out to the store. You should have enough basic supplies on hand to last several days.
- Have a battery-powered portable radio available. This will allow you to listen to weather reports and other emergency news in the event of a power outage. In case power lines are disabled, it is also advisable to have a fully-charged cell phone for emergency use.
- Stock up on medications you may need, and if you have a home health care service, plan ahead with the agency to establish emergency procedures.
- Pre-arrange for someone to check on you in the event of a weather emergency.
Falling is one of the biggest health hazards seniors face in the winter as ice, snow and sleet build up on steps or walkways. When venturing out on freezing days, make sure to wear sturdy, low-heeled shoes with non-skid rubber soles. Although heavy, thick-soled shoes are often recommended for walking in snow, seniors with poor circulation may actually have better traction with thin-soled shoes because they provide better contact with the ground. Following a winter snowfall, stay clear of unshoveled sidewalks and hilly terrain. If you’re unsure of whether or not a sidewalk is slippery, proceed cautiously, and walk with toes pointed outward, taking short, flat steps. It’s also advisable to remove your shoes immediately upon entering your home to avoid indoor falls caused by wet, slippery floors.
Seniors, especially those with a history of high blood pressure or heart disease, should avoid the strain of shoveling snow. The risks of severe muscle strains, falls or even heart attacks are simply too great. If you must shovel, use extra caution and follow a few simple rules:
- Dress warmly. Wear layers, gloves and a hat to retain body heat.
- Limber up with some light warm-up exercises before starting to shovel.
- Push, don’t lift. If possible, push the snow in front of you rather than lifting it. If you must lift, pick up small amounts and lift with your legs, not your back.
- Rest frequently and take lots of breaks. If you get dizzy or numb, go indoors immediately.
- Use rock salt or de-icing compounds on walkways and steps to avoid slipping.Keep a supply near your front door.
- When using a snow blower, be sure to read all the directions and follow the safety guidelines.
Hypothermia can occur when there is a drop in body temperature below 96 degrees. It can be extremely dangerous if not detected early. Medical experts believe certain conditions such as stroke, severe arthritis and Parkinson’s disease can block the body’s response to cold, as can some medications. This makes seniors particularly susceptible to accidental hypothermia. What Are the Warning Signs of Hypothermia?
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Confusion, disorientation, drowsiness
- Stiff muscles
- Slurred speech
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Slow, irregular heartbeat
- Weak pulse
- Stumbling and loss of coordination
Be aware that even cool temperatures of 60-65 degrees can cause a dangerous drop in internal body temperature, which can be deadly if not treated promptly and properly. To guard against the potentially devastating consequences of hypothermia, follow these simple guidelines:
- Try to limit your time outdoors, especially if you are in a high-risk group.
- If you must be outside during cold weather, wear warm, layered clothing made of natural fibers. You should wear a hat, warm socks and gloves to reduce heat loss.
- Stay indoors on windy days. Even if the temperature appears to be moderate, wind chill can substantially increase your risk of hypothermia.
- When indoors, keep your thermostat set at a comfortable level. Wear warm clothing, and use enough blankets at night to keep warm while sleeping.
- Eat hot, nourishing meals and drink warm beverages to keep your body temperature up.
If you suspect someone may be suffering from hypothermia, keep the person dry and warm with blankets. DO NOT rub limbs to warm them. You should also encourage him or her to drink hot beverages that are free of caffeine or alcohol. Above all, seek medical attention immediately.
Unfortunately, home fires are one of the most common causes of winter fatalities among seniors. Improper use of space heaters and other devices can result in fires that can consume your home. Here are some fire safety tips when heating your home:
- Keep clothing, curtains and blankets away from space heaters.
- Never smoke in bed or when you’re drowsy.
- Never use kerosene heaters or stoves to heat your home.
- Make sure all smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order throughout your home.
When the cold weather strikes, elderly and disabled neighbors may need extra help staying safe and sound. Offer your phone number for emergency calls and check on elderly loved ones and friends regularly. If possible, arrange for someone to shovel and de-ice their walkways and steps. During severe weather, see if they need transportation to and from medical appointments or to the grocery store. Make sure they have emergency supplies on hand. If loved ones are cognitively or physically disabled, arrange for someone to stay with them during a weather emergency.