There are many aspects to the Canadian winter that can make it a particularly hazardous season for older adults. Many seniors have chronic health conditions which are exacerbated by the cold temperatures and harsh weather conditions of the winter months. Seniors that require some assistance with daily living, will likely need even more help and support during the winter season.
Why is Winter more Difficult for Seniors?
The cold weather is actually more taxing on people of all ages, but seniors tend to experience the most severe strain. Not only does the cold weather make it harder on existing ailments like arthritis and osteoporosis, it is also prime time for cold and flu season when a variety of new viruses and illnesses are introduced. Weakened immune systems make seniors more vulnerable to infections, influenza, and pneumonia.
Then there are other issues like lack of exercise, insufficient nutrition, and social isolation that can also contribute to deteriorating mental and physical health.
Winter Risks for Seniors
Some of the most serious risks for seniors during the winter, tend to include:
- Slips and falls
- Frostbite and hypothermia
- Shoveling injuries
- Car accidents
- Poor indoor air quality
- Lack of exercise and nutrition
- Isolation and depression
Slips and Falls
This is undoubtedly the most serious risk for seniors in the wintertime. It is estimated in Canada that every year 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 will experience injury due to a fall. Falls are one of the leading causes of hospitalization for seniors. The winter makes this risk of sustaining an injury from falling even greater. Regular exercises to maintain strength and mobility can help reduce the risk of falls. High traction, well-fitting footwear is also a good preventative measure.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed to extreme cold for extended periods of time. It can cause lasting damage to the skin if not addressed immediately and can even result in the loss of limbs in the most severe cases.
Hypothermia also happens in extremely cold temperatures, when body temperatures drop to perilously low levels. Seniors are at a higher risk for hypothermia due to physical changes that come with aging, that no longer allow the body to generate itself enough heat to replace the amount lost from prolonged exposure to intense cold.
Seniors that live in a house, as opposed to an apartment or condo, also have the burden of worrying about snow removal. Shoveling snow can result in back injuries, or may aggravate existing conditions like arthritis or osteoporosis. Even just the general strain of shoveling can be risky for individuals with heart problems. Older adults should look for assistance, or alternative methods of snow removal, especially when snowfalls are heavy and dense.
All drivers should be on increased alert when driving in the winter, and the risk of getting in an accident is increased for seniors with diminished reaction times, or for others that don’t drive very often. Driving during the winter should only be done when necessary, when roads are clear, and ideally during the daylight.
Poor Air Quality
People tend to spend significantly more time indoors during the winter, and poor indoor air quality can lead to respiratory ailments and other health conditions. It is a good idea to have furnaces serviced, and ensure that air filters have been changed. Also, for houses with fireplaces or gas heaters, a functional carbon monoxide tester should be present to avoid excessive exposure or poisoning.
Lack of Exercise and Nutrition
In addition to spending more time indoors, many people also tend to live a more sedentary lifestyle during the winter. Lack of exercise can have a more pronounced impact on seniors, as it can lead to weakened muscles and stiff joints, which reduce mobility, impair balance, and increase the risk of injury due to falls.
Nutrition can also easily drop off during the winter, as fewer excursions outdoors also likely means fewer trips to the grocery store. This often results in settling for prepared, processed foods which offer very little nutritional value. Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand, and both are incredibly important to keep up during the long winter months.
Isolation and Depression
More time spent indoors also generally means fewer opportunities for social activity. As with physical activity, it is equally essential to engage in regular social interaction to prevent isolation. Social seclusion often leads to more serious issues like depression.
Winter Tips for Seniors
To stay safe and cheerful this winter, there are several useful tips and suggestions to make the season less daunting and strenuous. Some useful recommendations, include:
- Keep physically active – low impact strength building and stretching are very helpful
- Wear appropriate outdoor attire
- Footwear is the most important – should be warm, snug fitting, and high traction
- Warm hats
- Good gloves or mitts
- Layers are a good method for lasting warmth
- Seek assistance for shoveling duties, lay down ice melt on outdoor walkways
- Clear the indoors of clutter, and ensure all windows are well sealed
- Have the furnace checked and serviced
- Keep carbon monoxide testers functional
- Get flu and pneumonia vaccinations
- Drive only when necessary, ideally with another person and not at night
- Maintain a healthy balanced diet
- Keep socially active
- Enlist the services of a professional home caregiver