Seniors face four major challenges during the winter months; weather, social isolation, seasonal affective disorder, and maintaining proper nutrition. Planning ahead, and enlisting the help of adult children, neighbors or caregivers when needed, can help seniors stay safe and mobile during the cold months.
The most obvious hazard is weather since ice, snow, and bitter temperature can cause many problems. Slips on ice are a major risk for seniors, so wearing shoes with appropriate traction is important. Snow and ice can present major dangers on the road. Seniors should avoid driving when these conditions are present. Shoveling snow can put added strain on the back and heart therefore this task should be left to neighbors, friends, family or hired help. Winter weather also presents added risks inside the home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that seniors over the age of 65 yrs. make up nearly half of all hypothermia deaths ugydhvf. Some symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion and drowsiness. The leading cause of hypothermia in the elderly is poorly heated homes. The thermostat should be kept at a minimum of 65 degrees and should be checked during the day, since seniors may not realize they are at risk if the temperature drops.
For reasons outlined above, seniors can become socially isolated. Social isolation can be very harmful leading to extreme loneliness and depression. Family and friends should plan to visit frequently and provide transportation for shopping, places of worship, and locations where social interaction can take place.
Many seniors develop Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a form of depression that can happen at any time of the year but typically occurs during the winter months. These “winter time blues” are generally caused by a lack of sunlight. When time and weather conditions permit, it may be helpful to go outside for a short period of time. Opening the curtains and blinds to let the natural lighting in the house, and sitting by the window for periods of time throughout the day is another helpful activity. Physicians sometimes recommend light box therapy, which is sitting in front of a light box for a period each day. A light box is a piece of equipment containing florescent lamps that gives off light similar to sunlight.
Maintaining good nutrition is also very important during winter months. Eating well-balanced meals and avoiding alcoholic beverages as well as caffeine will help seniors stay warmer. Alcohol and caffeine cause the body to lose heat more rapidly than other beverages. Good meal choices include stews and soups that also provide additional liquids as well as important nutrients. Dry cold weather can cause dehydration so it is important to drink six to eight glasses of liquids per day. With limited sunshine exposure during the winter, vitamin D deficiency may develop. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, a condition that can lead to a decrease in bone density that causes bones to break. Eating foods fortified with Vitamin D is a safe way to reduce this risk. A physician may also recommend a dietary supplement.
In one of his poems, the English poet Shelley, wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Well, winter is certainly here but the good news is that the first harbinger of spring in our area, the Philadelphia Flower Show, will open on February 28th and run through March 8th. What a wonderful opportunity to take a senior to a joyful event that welcomes the approaching season!