Keeping Older Adults Safe in Winter
For older adults, there are two kinds of concerns in winter: physical safety and health safety, according to Krisa Christian, MD, St. Luke's Duluth Internal Medicine Associates.
Risks to physical safety include snow, ice, falls, fractures, frostbite and hypothermia. To prevent falls, it's important to have good, well-fitting footwear. "You can buy spikes for your shoes that improve the grip as you walk," says Dr. Christian.
"For people who have gait instability,
they should also use walkers, avoid the ice and have a person with them when they go out."
Preventing frostbite means covering all body surfaces, including the face. Clothing should fit well but not be too tight. If you are in the car, you should have an emergency kit, blankets and a way to contact someone for help. "And if the weather is subzero and the wind chill is below 32 degrees, older people should avoid being outside," says Dr. Christian.
There are three kinds of health safety that older adults should be concerned about: influenza, seasonal affective disorder and vitamin D deficiency. Dr. Christian advises everyone to get a flu shot, unless you have an allergy to eggs. "And it's good to get a pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia," she says. The signs of influenza include fever, cough and muscle aches, and if you have these symptoms, see your St. Luke's doctor and try not to expose others. Washing your hands frequently will help prevent the spread of germs.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is a form of depression that occurs in fall or winter. It can affect people of all ages, especially women. "It's good to take advantage of nice days during the winter," says Dr. Christian. Light therapy, which uses a light that is very similar to the sun, is also helpful.
Vitamin D deficiency can occur in people who have little exposure to sunlight, have milk allergies or are on a strict vegetarian diet. Lack of vitamin D can lead to softening and weakening of the bones. "When vitamin D is present in your diet, it's activated by sunlight," says Dr. Christian. "When you are indoors all the time, you aren't exposed to direct sunlight. An oral vitamin D supplement can help." Along with the supplement, drinking milk and adding fish or liver to your diet can help.