Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults

For Caregivers

Winter can be a precarious time for people over the age of 65. It’s important to know what the risks are and how to address them so you and your loved one can get the most out of the season. When the temperatures drop and conditions become snowy or icy, a few cold weather safety precautions can make sure older adults stay safe.

Hypothermia

Older adults are especially susceptible to hypothermia because their bodies lose heat more quickly than they used to. Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 95°, which can occur even in 60° weather. The threat of hypothermia is doubly dangerous, because when the blood vessels and arteries narrow, blood flow is restricted and can trigger heart attacks, kidney problems and liver damage.

What to do:

The most important winter weather safety advice: Keep warm. Make sure the temperature in the house stays around 68° F or 70° F and there aren’t any significant drafts from windows and doors. Dress warmly in loose layers, wear socks and slippers inside, and don’t stay immobile for very long — keep the blood flowing.

Falls

Falls are always a concern for older adults, due to the loss of muscle, vision problems, and decreased balance that are natural side effects of aging. During the winter, however, snow and ice can dramatically increase the risk of falls.

What to do:

Staying inside when possible is one of the most straightforward tips for cold weather safety for seniors to avoid slippery conditions. But when seniors do venture out, they should wear supportive footwear with good traction; take wide, short steps; keep hands out of pockets; and always use support when it’s available.

Flu

Seniors should be especially careful during flu season because, as people age, it becomes more difficult for their immune systems to fight the virus. Older adults are also more vulnerable to potential complications from the flu, especially respiratory issues like pneumonia.

What to do:

Get a flu shot every year and encourage people around your loved one to get the shot as well. Wash hands regularly and drink plenty of fluids. If possible, stay away from large crowds.

Frostbite

According to Advantage Home Care, the risk of frostbite increases for people who are already living with certain chronic illnesses, like diabetes, vascular disease and COPD, and for people taking specific medications, like beta blockers and certain sleeping pills.

What to do:

Strategies for avoiding frostbite are very similar to those for avoiding hypothermia. Dress in loose, warm clothing and limit time outdoors, especially in extreme cold. If the temperature drops below 0°, frostbite can set in within 30 minutes. In cold and windy conditions, protect extremities. Wear a hat, mittens and warm socks.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Gas-powered furnaces and alternative heating sources make winter the most dangerous time for carbon monoxide poisoning. Though it may not be the first peril you consider for winter weather safety, seniors and their families should be aware of the symptoms of CO poisoning — headaches, confusion, dizziness, nausea — and be sure they don’t confuse them for the symptoms of influenza or tiredness.

What to do:

Have the HVAC, water heater and chimney in the house professionally inspected. Never use a gas oven to heat the home and never use a generator inside. Turn off the car right away in the garage and install CO detectors in your home.

Seasonal Affective Disorder/Social Isolation

One of the most common cold weather tips for seniors is to stay inside, and while that’s very good advice to avoid illness or injury, it can also lead to other complications. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is caused by a lack of sunlight that comes with shorter days and less time spent outside. SAD can bring on symptoms of depression, including lack of energy, changing sleep patterns, irritability and self-imposed isolation. Isolation then creates its own issues, negatively affecting the immune system and heart health.

What to do:

A light box, mimicking natural outdoor light, can be successful in making up for decreased sunlight. Seniors can also talk to their doctor about adding a vitamin D supplement to their diet. People normally generate vitamin D as a result of exposure to sunlight, but eating salmon, eggs and cheese can also increase vitamin D levels when sunlight is scarce. Also, help seniors stay social during the winter. Families and friends can make a special effort to help their loved ones socialize by calling and visiting.

Winter is filled with fun and celebrations. Your loved one doesn’t have to hide away because of the weather. Taking practical steps toward cold weather safety for seniors can help them enjoy the season.