Top 10 Winter Safety Tips for Older Adults

Once you’ve lived through a few Ohio winters, you know how to handle the bad weather, right?

Not necessarily, says Sally Moennich, vice president of Judson at Home. “Winter presents some unique challenges as people age,” she says. “For instance, we all have a flashlight in the house – but where is it? If your power goes out, you don’t want to be climbing on a chair to reach high shelves, or rummaging through closets in the dark.”

It’s all about being prepared. Here are 10 suggestions for keeping safe and warm during the winter months:

1.) Get Rid of Throw Rugs

“Get rid of throw rugs,” Moennich says, to prevent tripping over them. Some 8 million older adults – those over 65 – are treated in emergency rooms each year for injuries caused by falling, and 300,000 of them are admitted to hospitals. Singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen died in November following a fall, and he’s not alone: the mortality rate after falling is 33 percent. “It’s better to put down a mat that lays flat on the ground,” she says.

Moennich also recommends avoiding falls by installing grab bars wherever you’re likely to change position, such as in an entryway where there might be a step, and in showers. “People think holding onto the door frame will keep them from falling, but you can’t get a good grip.” Non-skid bathtub and shower decals are another good idea to keep from slipping. “You don’t want to break the big bones,” she adds, because your body will want to repair them quickly – and in older adults, that “fix-it mode” causes a major shift in your metabolic equilibrium, a bit like going into shock.

2.) Keep Your Cords Out of the Way

We charge our cell phones and tablets overnight on our night stands, or perhaps near the kitchen table, plus we have lamps and CPAP machines and computers – often charging in the same outlet. “Cords are a hazard we don’t often think of, but they can be dangerous,” Moennich says. Bundle them and make sure they won’t get tangled in your feet.

3.) Be Ready In Case the Lights Go Out

“Now is a good time to plan: what will I do if I lose power? How will I keep myself comfortable, warm and safe?” Moennich says. Start by keeping one good working flashlight next to the bed, in an easy-to-reach place, and another near your favorite chair. Don’t worry if you think it adds clutter; bring it out for the winter anyway. You can find inexpensive LED flashlights at any home-supplies store, and the light will last for years.

4.) Wear Too Much

“Wear too much,” Moennich says. “You can always take off a layer or two.” We grow more sensitive to temperatures as we age. Older people should cover all exposed skin when they go outside in winter, and think about how to protect themselves from possible drops in temperature inside their homes.

5.) Get Weather Updates

Get weather updates before you leave the house – especially if you’re driving. In northeastern Ohio, weather conditions on the West Side can be vastly different from those in the eastern suburbs, and nearby cities like Akron could be 20 degrees warmer – or colder – than along Lake Erie. You never know when you’ll be driving on ice.

And you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: keep a blanket in the car, along with extra gloves and warm socks.

6.) Be Careful with Candles

Be careful about lighting candles. So many people shrug off this advice, Moennich says, “but a fire can start without warning. Pay attention to what your candles are next to, what they’re sitting on, whether they’re close to curtains or your Christmas displays.” They create a soothing ambience, but you don’t want to put your safety at risk.

The same care should be taken when you use a space heater. It can provide great comfort and warmth on a chilly evening, even allowing you to lower your thermostat a little – but it’s critical that you read the safety instructions before you plug in your heater, and follow them to the letter.

7.) Do as the Animals Do

“Do as the animals do,” Moennich says, and stock up on the essentials. Don’t become a hoarder, but have some extra food and water handy in case you can’t get out for a few days. “Be a squirrel – they’re good at planning ahead. Keep a few cans of soup in the cupboard, and set aside a few bottles of water. That way, if a storm is coming, you won’t worry about running out to get food or water.” And, she adds, make sure your prescriptions are kept current. Don’t let them run low – try to have a week’s worth of meds in your cupboard all winter.

8.) Stay Hydrated

Stay hydrated in winter. “Just because it isn’t 90 degrees out, doesn’t mean you can’t get dehydrated,” Moennich says. You should drink as much water during the winter as you do in summer. Water plays a big part in keeping our body fluids balanced and our skin looking clear, bright and healthy (translation: fewer wrinkles!).

Water also gives you energy – an issue for many people during the dark, dreary winter months. Dehydration is said to be the number-one reason for daytime fatigue, and drinking water can help you get through the days without feeling sluggish.

9.) Know How to Operate Health-Related Equipment

Make sure someone knows how to operate any health-related equipment you may have at home, such as an oxygen tank or CPAP machine. If you can’t work your machines for a few days, you’ll feel more secure if there’s someone you can call who knows your needs, and your routine.

10.) Get Friendly with Your Neighbors

Invite neighbors over for coffee. “Winter can be very isolating,” Moennich says, “and it’s up to each of us to make the most of our days.” If you live where daytime activities are available, go to an extra session or two each week. Get a little more involved with your community. Most universities offer classes free of charge to older adults; you won’t get credit for them but you’ll stretch your brain and have fun learning something new. “The risk of depression is much greater in winter,” Moennich says, “and you might have to push yourself a little – but it will pay off.”

And don’t overlook the flip side of that advice: Whether you’re an older person or the next generation, check in with your own friends and relatives – especially if you don’t think they’re socializing much. Friendships and social engagement can add years to your life and quality to your days – and before you know it, spring will be here.

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