5 Winter Hazards and How Seniors Can Avoid Them
Everyone is affected by the bitter cold weather that the winter season brings each year. But, for seniors in particular, this time presents many winter challenges and hazards.
Fortunately, with knowledge and planning, seniors can avoid them.
The most obvious perils of winter are from the weather itself:
- Driving: Ice and snow can present major dangers on the road. Seniors should avoid driving when road conditions are at their worst, and those who do drive should be prepared for the conditions. Drive slowly. Make sure snow-tires are installed when appropriate, and keep blankets and food in the car should the vehicle be stranded or disabled.
- Falls: Slips on ice are a major risk for seniors in winter, so it’s important to wear shoes with appropriate traction.
- Frostbite and Hypothermia: Cold temperatures can cause frostbite and hypothermia. According to Centers for Disease Control, more than half of hypothermia deaths are among seniors. Older adults who do venture outside in cold weather should make sure to dress warmly. Among some vulnerable seniors, hypothermia can even occur indoors if the air temperature in the home isn’t warm enough, so seniors should keep their thermostats above 65 degrees, and seek assistance if they lose heating in an emergency.
2. Decreased Daylight, Dementia and Sundowning
Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia sometimes experience Sundowners Syndrome, which manifests itself as increased agitation, anger, confusion and memory loss during the evening hours. Sundowning is often exacerbated during the low light conditions of winter, because the season’s low light can disrupt our body’s internal day/night clock (known as circadian rhythms).
Quoted in an article about daylight saving time and sundowning, Dr. Lindsay Jones-Born says, “Seasonality can definitely impact symptoms, which is why it’s so important to maintain a regular schedule and do things to lessen the impact of loss of light for these individuals.” Our in-depth article on sundowners syndrome lists a number of steps that family caregivers can use to prevent or minimize sundowning, such as establishing a routing, letting light into the home, and promoting a relaxing environment in the evening (for example, by reducing noise).
3. Flu Season
With winter comes the flu, which seniors are especially susceptible to developing because of weakened immune systems. The flu causes a significant number of fatalities among seniors each year, and it can also lead to secondary infections such as pneumonia.
For our article about senior flu prevention, we got in touch with Dr. W. Paul McKinney, associate dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Louisville. McKinney told us, “They [seniors] should make every reasonable effort to get vaccinated early in flu season,” adding that even seniors who feel robust enough to fend off the flu should be vaccinated: “There is no reason a healthy senior should defer a vaccine,” McKinney says.
4. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or “the Wintertime Blues”
Many people experience a decrease in energy and mood during the winter, which is caused by decreased daytime light in winter. This phenomenon is known as “seasonal affective disorder” or “SAD.” Those who live in northern states (where daytime is shorter) are at highest risk. Open blinds and curtains during winter to let natural lighting in. Light therapy, using full-spectrum lights available at many box stores, can also be used to prevent or alleviate the wintertime blues. Seniors experiencing depression should talk to their doctors.
5. Social Isolation
The very hazards that we outlined above can lead to seniors becoming socially isolated. If your older loved one has been spending a lot of time alone at home due to inclement weather, try to spend extra time there. You can also arrange transportation to the local senior center, your loved one’s place of worship, and to other places where opportunities to socialize are available.