When you think of winter, you probably think about the holidays, glorious time off from work or going home to see the family. Maybe that makes winter one of your favorite seasons. But for adult children with aging parents, winter can be especially uneasy. There are common hazards that need to be addressed to ensure that your senior loved one can enjoy the season as much as the rest of the family, especially if he or she is already experiencing issues with limited mobility.
As the temperatures outside drop, the risk of hypothermia rises. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. When hypothermic, the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. As the body temperature drops, the brain function slows, so the person is unlikely to realize they are affected. Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, loss of dexterity and memory loss. If you suspect hypothermia, and your loved one’s temperature is below 95 F, seek medical help immediately.
Seniors are among the very worst affected by hypothermia. As we age, our bodies’ ability to regulate heat lessens, so seniors perhaps don’t feel the cold as younger people do. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that roughly 1,000 Americans die every year from hypothermia, although other studies believe this figure is much higher, possibly as many as 20,000.
Keeping your senior warm through winter is essential, so consider doing the following:
- Make sure your parent is dressing appropriately for the temperatures
- Living in a cold house can be a major cause of hypothermia, and seniors who are on fixed incomes can be reluctant to heat the house properly. The National Institute on Aging recommends that heating should be set between 68 and 70 F to decrease the risk
- Have blankets available
- Encourage your parent to wear long pajamas when necessary
- Make sure your loved one is eating enough, as food is burned by the body to produce heat
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends ensuring that someone is checking on your loved one frequently to make sure that the house is warm enough and he or she is comfortable.
If your loved one has dementia or other cognitive issues, the risk of hypothermia may be even higher. Six out of 10 people with dementia wander. When the temperatures are low, getting lost could lead to hypothermia, particularly if the senior is not dressed for the weather. Discover tips on helping a loved one who wanders.
Ice and Snow
Falls can be deadly for seniors at any time of year. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries in seniors every year. Per the CDC, one in four seniors falls every year, with 2.8 million emergency room visits and 800,000 seniors hospitalized for their injuries. When the ground is covered with snow and ice, sidewalks become treacherous. Steps and stairs can be deadly. Frederic Frost, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic says that if a person over 80 breaks a hip, there is only a 50 percent chance of that person ever being able to return home.
Have someone visit Mom or Dad and clear a path to the front door. Make sure your loved one is wearing sensible shoes with non-slip soles and using a cane outside if necessary. Encourage your parent not to travel if conditions are particularly bad, and only for essential trips.
Don’t forget that falls can happen in the house too. Puddles from melting snow and ice tracked in on someone’s shoes can be a slip hazard. Encourage visitors to leave their shoes at the front door. Poor eyesight can be a factor in senior falls and the darker afternoons of winter can exacerbate this, so ensure that the house is well lit. Learn more about this and other fall safety for the elderly.
The winter holidays are always a busy time. During this period, it may be that friends and family who are regular visitors have other obligations and are less able to visit your loved one. Isolation can lead to depression, and depression can lead to further health problems. Socialization brings significant cognitive benefits to seniors, so making sure that your loved one has company is essential.
If your parent lives in an area where the winters are more severe, make sure to help plan ahead. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that you:
- Make sure he or she has plenty of supplies including food and water
- Ensure your loved one has an extended supply of any prescription medicines
- Make a family plan and discuss what will happen if there is a winter storm
- Use TV, radio and other news sources to keep abreast of changing weather conditions
- Have your loved one wear layered clothes and have blankets or sleeping bags available in case power goes out
- Limit outside trips to emergencies
If you have advanced notice of inclement weather, consider whether someone can stay with your loved one, or if he or she can stay with someone else.
Cold and Flu
As winter rolls around, so does flu season. From coughs and sniffles to the full-blown influenza virus, which affects 10 percent of the population each year, seniors are more at risk of catching diseases and more susceptible to their effects. From 2017 to 2018, it’s estimated that 80,000 Americans died from the flu. The CDC recommends the best way to protect seniors from flu is to have them immunized as early as possible, before the end of October is preferable. Other preventative measures that should be taken include washing hands regularly, covering when coughing or sneezing and avoiding people who are sick.
Often one symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia is sundown syndrome. Sundowning usually occurs in late afternoon or early evening and can take the form of a “meltdown.” It’s usually a collection of disruptive behaviors including agitation, anxiety, aggression and yelling, and is sometimes accompanied by confusion, disorientation and wandering. While it’s not known what causes sundowning, one possible trigger is reduced lighting and increased shadows, leading to confusion and anxiety. In the winter months when the nights draw in earlier, adults affected by sundown syndrome may have a longer window in which they are affected. Ensuring that your loved one’s home is well lit during winter may help. For more tips on managing sundown syndrome read this article.
Consider Whether a Professional Caregiver Could Help
With the increased risks of winter to seniors, having someone check in on your loved one more often is critical. However, it may be that family and friends are not close, or are unable to increase the time they spend. A professional caregiver could visit your loved one as often as he or she requires, monitor the temperature in the house and help your loved one to dress in warm, appropriate clothes. A caregiver could offer company, prevent isolation and supervise walks to help prevent falls. And knowing that your loved one is with the caregiver can let you relax a little and get on with the other tasks you have in this busy season.
Can’t be around to check in on your parent all winter?
Consider seasonal caregiving by contacting Visiting Angels.