With the first snowfall of the season last weekend in Philadelphia, winter is certainly upon us. While the coming months can be filled with winter fun and holiday cheer, the cold weather and precipitation can pose several health concerns for older adults.
The following tips should help older adults stay healthy and safe during the winter.
1. Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia
Older adults run a higher risk of health problems related to colder temperatures, including hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is caused when your body temperature drops to dangerous levels, which can happen if you are out in cold weather for extended periods of time. Older adults are more susceptible to hypothermia than younger people, due to changes that happen when our bodies age. The warning signs of hypothermia include cold skin that is pale or ashy; feeling weak; experiencing slowed breathing or heart rate; or having sudden feelings of tiredness or confusion. You should call 911 right away if you believe you are suffering from hypothermia.
Extended exposure to cold weather can also cause frostbite and damage to your skin and tissue. Signs of frostbite include numbness; skin that is hard, waxy or appears to be red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow. While not as dangerous as hypothermia, you should still consult a doctor if you suspect frostbite.
2. Stay warm
The best way to prevent a cold-related illness is to keep warm. Dress appropriately when going outside in the cold, wearing layers and covering all exposed skin while outside. Frostbite most often occurs in the fingers, toes, ears and face, so wearing hats, warm gloves, thick socks and scarves can help keep you protected.
Preserving warmth also means keeping your living space appropriately heated. If high utility costs prevent you from using your heat, there are programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that help lower utility costs and keep your home warm in the cold months. In Philadelphia, the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) operates 14 Neighborhood Energy Centers where trained counselors can help you apply for LIHEAP, weatherization programs and heating services. The ECA also operates a heater hotline (215-568-7190) and provides heating-system repair services for low-income homeowners.
3. Be aware of possible falls
Ice and winter precipitation increases the risk of falls. When possible, plan your trips around the weather to minimize the walking you might need to do in the ice and snow. Wearing shoes or boots with good traction can help, as well as replacing worn cane tips. Be aware of slippery floors when entering buildings. Take your shoes off as you return indoors so that snow and ice on your footwear doesn’t melt and lead to slippery conditions inside.
It is also advisable not to carry anything when walking in ice and snow. Consider instead using a backpack. Having your hands free can help to keep your balance and break a fall if you slip.
4. Be careful while shoveling
If you live in a house or apartment where you are responsible for clearing snow from a driveway or sidewalk, exercise caution. If there is someone else who can shovel for you, enlist their help. Use a smaller lightweight tool and push snow out of the way instead of shoveling.
Shoveling is a strenuous exercise and you should stay hydrated and take breaks frequently. During large snowfalls, shovel frequently for shorter time periods to keep the snow from piling too high or getting too heavy. It also helps to stretch and do warm-ups.
5. Prepare for emergencies
Severe weather can lead to power outages. Always have supplies stored and ready in case of a storm or loss of electricity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people keep extra blankets, sleeping bags and warm winter coats easily accessible. Flashlights, batteries, a battery-powered radio, a first-aid kit and a cellphone with a portable charger are all important for winter-emergency preparedness. You should also be sure that your medications are refilled and that you have plenty of drinking water and nonperishable food.
You should also make plans before extreme winter weather hits to communicate with your friends and loved ones if you encounter any personal emergencies. Having a friend or neighbor who can check in on you will help to ensure that you stay safe during emergency weather.
Winter is here whether we like it or not. Taking the right steps to stay healthy and safe will allow you to enjoy the winter months as best as possible!
David Griffith is the director of programs and outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To learn more about the LGBT Elder Initiative and upcoming programs for LGBT older adults, visit www.lgbtelderinitiative.org.