Seniors are particularly susceptible to cold and as the temperatures drops, health issues crop up in seniors especially in elderly who have underlying health issues like diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, or who are bed bound or have limited mobility because of other age related health problems.
A serious and life threatening health issue, for which common population is not aware about is
Hypothermia which means the body has a temperature that has fallen below 95 degrees (35° C) and can't produce enough energy to stay warm enough. The elderly are at special risk because they may have limited ability to communicate, impaired mobility, less subcutaneous fat, and a diminished ability to sense temperature.This can be also be due to chronic health conditions or the use of certain medicines, including over – the – counter – cold remedies.
Warning signs include:
- Slowed or slurred speech
- Sleepiness or confusion
- Shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs ( Do not rely on shivering alone as a warning sign, since seniors tend to shiver less or not at all as their body temperature drops)
- Poor control over body movements
- Slow reactions
- A weak pulse
To prevent or reduce the chance of hypothermia, older adults can take a number of steps.First, ask your doctor or pharmacist if any prescription or over-the-counter medications being advised increase the risk for hypothermia.Try to keep room temperatures in home to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even inside temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees can put older adults at risk for hypothermia.
Indoors, wear long underwear under your clothes, as well as socks and slippers and a hat or cap. It's also a good idea to use a blanket to keep the legs and shoulders warm.
When going outside advise the elderly to wear a hat and scarf to prevent the loss of body heat through the head, and gloves or mittens to prevent the loss of body heat through the hands. Wearing several layers of loose clothing helps trap warm air between the layers.
Frostbite can cause damage to the skin and progress to the bone. It usually affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can even result in loss of limbs. Seniors with heart disease and other circulation problems are at risk. Prevention includes covering up all parts of the body when going outside. If skin turns red, dark or starts to hurt it’s time to go inside right away.
Symptoms of frostbite include skin that’s white, ashy or grayish-yellow; feels hard or waxy; or is numb. If frostbite occurs, place frostbitten parts of the body in warm (not hot) water, and call for medical help immediately.
A person with frostbite may also have hypothermia, so check for those symptoms, too.
Heart attacks and high blood pressure are more common in winter because cold snaps increase blood pressure and strain on the heart. The heart has to work harder to maintain body heat, while falling temperatures may cause an unhealthy rise in blood pressure ─ especially in seniors. In winter, blood pressure increases are seen in both the systolic and diastolic levels.
Painful joints occur more often in winter, though it's not clear why this is the case. While many people with arthritis say their joints become more painful and stiff, there is no evidence that weather changes cause joint damage. Mild daily exercise can help in decreasing these pains.
Lung spasms can occur in seniors with respiratory conditions, including asthma and COPD. Seniors are particularly sensitive to cold air, which can trigger these spasms. Suggest using face or “ski” masks from an outdoor or sporting goods store to use their own breath to warm the air before it enters the lungs.
Influenza can result in pneumonia in seniors. Flu vaccines, while not always effective in preventing the illness, can reduce the severity of the symptoms and protect against complications. Flu vaccines are strongly recommended for persons 65+ years old and those who suffer from chronic health problems such as heart disease, respiratory problems, renal disease, diabetes, anemia, or any disease that weakens the body's immune system. Because influenza vaccine is only effective for one year and viruses vary annually, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year. Do so early, since it takes about two weeks to develop full immunity. However, even a shot in January may protect against a late winter outbreak.
Decreased Daylight, Dementia and Sundowning: Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia sometimes experience Sundowners Syndrome, which manifests itself as increased agitation, anger, confusion and memory loss during the evening hours. Sundowning is often exacerbated during the low light conditions of winter, because the season’s low light can disrupt our body’s internal day/night clock (known as circadian rhythms). Family caregivers can use to prevent or minimize sundowning by establishing a routine, letting light into the home, and promoting a relaxing environment in the evening (for example, by reducing noise).
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or “the Wintertime Blues”: Many people experience a decrease in energy and mood during the winter, which is caused by decreased daytime light in winter. This phenomenon is known as “seasonal affective disorder” or “SAD.” Those who live in northern states (where daytime is shorter) are at highest risk. Open blinds and curtains during winter to let natural lighting. Seniors experiencing depression should talk to their doctors.Vitamin D can help. Encourage seniors to consume foods fortified with Vitamin D, such as milk, grains, and seafood like tuna and salmon.
Social Isolation: The hazards due to “ the Wintertime Blues” can lead to seniors becoming socially isolated. Try to spend extra time with seniors if they are living alone. Transportation to the local senior center or place of worship, or places where there are opportunities to socialize can be arranged.
Tips for Seniors in Winter
- Stay Indoors. Cold temperatures, high winds, snow, and rain can all steal body heat. Wind especially, because it removes the layer of heated air from around the body.
- If seniors feel they must go outside, don’t let them stay out for very long, and they should go indoors if they start to shiver.
- Stay Dry. Wet clothing chills the body quickly.
- Wear Layers. Wearing two or three thinner layers of loose-fitting clothing is warmer than a single layer of thick clothing. Seniors should always wear layers, as well as a hat, gloves or mittens, a coat and boots, and a scarf to cover the mouth and nose and protect lungs from cold air.
- Winter certainly poses challenges for seniors, but with awareness and planning, they will stay healthy and be ready for spring.