All Minnesotans know they need to be prepared for the weather-related changes
winter brings. Today’s elders have survived many severe winters, often without
central heat, running water, or indoor plumbing. They wore wool clothes
instead of down and fleece, and, lacking Gore-tex, dried their shoes and socks in
front of a fire every night. They were young then, and if they slipped and fell they
got up and went on their way. Even with modern housing and technically advanced clothing, boots, and supplies, severe winter weather can pose hazards to seniors’ health more so than to younger people. Winter related physical concerns for
seniors include problems that range from uncomfortable to life threatening.
_ Hypothermia can occur if indoor temperature is below 70 with insufficient layers of indoor clothing and/or a broken furnace.
_ Hypothermia and frostbite can occur if outdoors in cold temperatures with
insufficient layers of outdoor clothing including a hat, scarf, and gloves.
_ Inability to procure food can occur during periods of severe weather.
_ Dehydration happens due to the very dry air that occurs with central heating.
_ Dry, itchy skin frequently occurs due to the very dry air that occurs with central heating.
_ Fractures due to falling are a major risk when there is ice and snow on outdoor steps, walkways, curbs, driveways and shopping areas.
_ Heart attacks and back injuries are consequences of shoveling heavy snow.
_ Injuries in traffic crashes are more common due to slippery conditions and/or
poor visibility.
_ Illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza happen more frequently and with greater severity. Some of these issues can be easily resolved. For example, some elders may resist spending money on sufficient indoor heat and keep their thermostats set too low. Teaching them the importance of maintaining indoor temperature at least 70 degrees and the benefit of wearing two or three layers
of clothing can prevent hypothermia. Providing additional information about
the need to wear several layers to go outdoors in cold weather can eliminate or
reduce the likelihood of hypothermia. If people wear their indoor layers along with an additional sweater under their heavy coat, and wear a warm hat, scarf, gloves, and thick socks with boots, they will be warm enough for routine trips to the grocery store or physician even in very cold weather. Using a cool mist humidifier
as directed can reduce indoor dryness. (Hot mist humidifiers present a risk of
burn injury and quick bacterial growth, and should be avoided). The importance
of adequate cleaning of humidifies cannot be overstated. These devices can
grow unpleasant molds and bacteria that can cause human illness. Many seniors
need help maintaining adequate cleanliness of humidifiers. Other tactics to
decrease dry, itchy skin is to limit bathing to once or twice weekly and applying
body lotion all over every day. Dry skin can lead to itching and scratching, resulting in excoriation and infected sores. Since many seniors could benefit by
having standby assistance for safety while they bathe or shower, this may be a
good time to introduce a caregiver who could ensure safety getting in and out of
the tub or shower, and applying lotion after the bath and daily if possible. Isolation is a real problem for seniors during Minnesota winters, particularly if there are frequent periods of freezing and thawing that create icy conditions. Heavy snowfalls are also challenging because some seniors insist on shoveling which can induce heart attacks and disabling back pain, as well as falls and fractures. Many seniors are reluctant to drive in snow and ice, and become homebound for weeks and even months at a time. Some seniors are blessed with friends and family who do shopping and errands. However, families often leave on vacations and forget
that their elder family member needs to have perishables replaced each week,
such as bread, milk, and eggs. Seniors without outside help can run a real risk of malnutrition if they do not obtain assistance procuring necessities while they
are homebound. There are many options to get this type of help, but elders often
do not know how to get help or do not want or cannot pay for help. Accidental injuries including falls are the sixth highest cause of death of Minnesota seniors. Many falls and accidental injuries occur during the winter due to icy conditions underfoot and an increased rate of car crashes during inclement weather. Seniors can prevent or reduce the incidence of injuries by wearing appropriate footwear both in and out of their homes, getting help to remove snow and ice from around their dwellings, accepting a helpful hand when walking outdoors, and wearing seatbelts while in a car. It can also be wise to limit driving in icy or snowy conditions, and increase safety by riding in the back seat rather than the passenger
seat of cars. The rate and severity of illness generally increases in the winter as people spend more time together indoors. An upper respiratory infection that would cause a “head cold” in younger people can develop into a life-threatening
pneumonia in frail seniors. Influenza, prevented with an annual flu shot, can also cause serious and life-threatening illness in seniors. It is important to have flu shots each year and the pneumonia shot every five years to reduce the chance of becoming ill.
Seniors who do get sick should be monitored closely by their families and be seen
by their doctors if they do not quickly improve.