When the mercury plummets, it can be challenging for older adults to maintain their health and wellbeing. Due to the changes that come with ageing, older people are more likely to experience problems with colder temperatures – which can have significant and negative consequences. It’s especially important for older adults to be prepared for the chill of the winter months – so here are a few precautions to take as winter approaches.
Layer on the warm clothes
It’s important to wear warm enough clothes to keep your body temperature at a healthy level, as older people have a much higher risk of hypothermia than younger ones. Layer up with warm (preferably thermal) clothes, even if you’re just going to be staying at home. It’s entirely possible to become hypothermic while indoors, and this is unfortunately a common occurrence among elderly people. Layer on long underwear, scarves, beanies, jumpers, jackets and thick socks, and use a blanket over your lap when sitting down.
Use effective heating techniques
Keeping your house warm is one of the best ways to stay warm during winter. Make sure your heating or air conditioner works properly and efficiently, and close off areas of the house you are not using to save on heating bills. Keep blinds and windows closed and try a rolled-up towel under doors to prevent drafts.
Make your surroundings injury-proof
It’s easy to slip and fall during the winter, especially on icy, slippery ground or when wearing non-gripping footwear such as slippers or fuzzy socks. To make it worse, cold weather can cause seniors to experience reduced sensation in their feet and legs. Falls are a common occurrence for seniors during winter, and can cause fractures, breaks, lacerations and head trauma. And older people don’t recover from these injuries nearly as quickly as younger people.
Make sure you wear sturdy shoes with a good grip when walking around (even if it’s just to the mailbox) and save the slippers for when you’re sitting down. Invest in handrails and good lighting in your home, and make sure pathways are always clear. Be careful when walking outside, and always take your mobile phone with you so you can call for help if necessary.
Limit outside time
While it’s always important to get enough exercise, it’s wiser to exercise indoors a lot more during winter. Limiting outside time can also reduce the risk of falls, colds or chest infections and hypothermia. Limit the time you spend outdoors during the winter months, although you don’t need to cut it out completely.
Be smart when going outside
If you do go outside (and it’s important for getting fresh air and Vitamin D on your skin), be smart about it. Don’t stay outside for too long, and layer up with a few thinner layers of loose-fitting clothing to protect your lungs from the cold air. Layering is a great idea as it allows you to adjust your body temperature as you warm up and cool down. Cover all parts of your body when venturing out into the cold, and wear a hat or beanie, gloves, a thick winter coat, sturdy shoes and a scarf.
Make sure you don’t get wet either, as wet clothing will chill your body quickly, and older people are much more sensitive to extremes in temperature. Check the weather forecast before you go out, so that you can avoid damp and foggy conditions.
Don’t forget your flu shot
Even if you’ve had your COVID vaccine, it’s still wise to get a flu shot, as there are many types of cold and flu circulating in winter which can take a toll on your health. And while a flu shot won’t 100% guarantee you won’t contract the flu; it will make it much less likely and will reduce the length and severity of your symptoms if you do.
Eat more healthily than ever
A varied diet is extremely important in winter. It can seem difficult to achieve, however, as we miss out on much of the fresh produce of summer and tend to eat a smaller variety of foods. This may cause nutritional deficits such as vitamin D deficiency, which is associated with depression, declining cognitive function and osteoporosis. Try and eat a wide range of fresh, healthy and minimally processed foods that will boost your immune system, and consider taking a vitamin supplement if you’re low. And eating enough food will ensure you have enough body fat to keep warm. As well, avoid alcohol or only drink it moderately, as alcoholic drinks can cause a loss of body heat.
While it may not seem as though you need to drink as much in winter as summer, your body actually still has the same fluid needs. You should be drinking plenty of water in winter as well, to ward off dehydration, give you energy, keep your skin looking healthy and keep your body fluids balanced.
Know the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia
Older people can be susceptible to hypothermia and even frostbite in very cold weather, so it’s wise to make yourself aware of the symptoms. More than half of deaths related to hypothermia occur in people over the age of 65, so no one can afford to be complacent.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops to such an extent that it can cause health problems such as a heart attack, liver damage or kidney problems. Symptoms include:
- Cold feet and hands
- Pale skin
- Slow speech, slurred words, slow movements or acting sleepy, angry or confused
- Swollen or puffy face
- Feeling of weakness
- Slow, shallow breathing and a slow heartbeat
- Stiff, clumsy movements and loss of balance
- Loss of consciousness
If you think you might be suffering from hypothermia, get medical help straight away. In the meantime, move to a warmer place and use blankets, towels or warm drinks (although not caffeinated ones) to raise your body temperature.
Frostbite occurs in extreme cold and can cause damage to skin on exposed parts of your body such as your nose, ears, finger, toes, chin or cheeks.
- Ashen, white or greyish-yellow skin
- Skin that feels hard or waxy
If you suspect you’re suffering from frostbite, run the affected areas of your body under warm (although not hot) water and get medical help.
Look out for seasonal depression
SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that worsens depending on the season. Sufferers of SAD usually display symptoms of depression in autumn and winter, such as:
- Tiredness and lack of energy
- Oversleeping and overeating
- Weight gain
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
These symptoms usually start out mild and worsen as the season progresses. It is thought to be caused by changes in the body’s circadian rhythms during the colder months when the body produces less melatonin and serotonin hormones. This affects both sleep and mood. And while SAD is not overly common in Australia, many people find they feel lethargic and flat over winter, particularly as they tend to spend more time indoors and have less contact with other people. This can make older people feel lonely and isolated. If you think you might be suffering from SAD, get assistance from your doctor.
Manage your illnesses
Certain conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid problems, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease can make it harder to stay warm. Certain medications can also affect body heat. Plus, it can be harder to stay warm if your condition makes it hard for you to be active. Talk with your doctor about whether your condition or medication will affect body heat, and discuss ways you can counteract these effects. As well, some medical conditions like asthma can play up and worsen in cold weather, so be aware of the signs and ensure you have your medication to hand.
Winter can be a difficult season for older adults, but it doesn’t have to be unbearable. Follow these tips to stay warm, healthy and happy throughout the winter months. And do ask for help if you need it!