We all know Canadian winters can be brutally cold.
Frostbites, hypothermia and falls are among the numerous risks associated with cold temperatures. Older seniors, particularly, are at increased risk due to their fragility, impaired vision, poor circulation and a host of other factors. They also suffer more severe consequences; for example, they are more likely to have bone fractures secondary to a fall.
Here are some tips and precautions to take during the winter months to keep seniors safe in cold weather.
The silent killer in your home
Carbon monoxide is an odourless and colourless gas that is released by burning wood, natural gas, kerosene and other fuels.
All homes with fuel-burning appliances and heaters or attached garage or fireplace should be equipped with a carbon monoxide detector, particularly in areas where these appliances are used. Check the carbon monoxide alarms and in your home and replace the batteries at least every 6 months. It’s also a good time to check the smoke detectors as well.
When using a kerosene stove, make sure to crack open a window (even if its cold outside!) to let the carbon monoxide escape the room.
Finally, make sure to inspect and clean chimneys and flues every year. This will prevent blockage that could cause a build up of carbon monoxide.
Electric heaters and other appliances can be fire hazards, particularly in the winter months when they’re most heavily used.
Make sure space heaters are placed several feet away from curtains, furniture, bedding and anything else that may catch fire.
Keep a fire extinguisher in the home. A good place is the kitchen, by the fireplace or kerosene heater.
All homes should be equipped with battery-operated smoke detectors. At a minimum, there should be a detector installed on every floor of the home. If there are staircases, a smoke detector should be installed at the landing because this is where the smoke will accumulate in the case of a fire. Like carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors should also be checked at least every 6 months.
Most families overlook this important home safety measure
Most families do not have a emergency preparedness plan in place.
When it comes to house fires, make sure that everyone (including Caregivers!) know where the exits are in the house. This can mean the difference between life and death, especially when the commonly known exits are blocked by smoke or fire.
HELPFUL TIP: If you’ve received an in-home consultation, we’ve given you a Home Safety card in your Welcome Package. We recommend that you keep it in a visible place where everyone can see – like on the fridge!
Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops to a dangerously low level – usually to below 35 degrees Celsius in adults.
In a typical healthy adult, the body detects this drop in temperature and attempts to keep warm by generating heat. (This is why people who are cold have involuntary shivering.) This is a medical emergency.
Unfortunately, older adults produce less body heat and their ability to detect low temperatures is impaired. So they may not shiver at all when their body temperature drops.
Those caring for seniors must be extra cognizant of their susceptibility to hypothermia and take extra care to make sure they are kept warm when travelling outdoors on cold winter days.
Cover the parts of the body that loses heat the most – the head, hands, feet. It is also a good idea to wear a scarf to protect the mouth, nose and lungs when breathing in cold air. Opt for several layers of thin clothing over one thick layer – heat is trapped between the layers and it provides more warmth. And always remove wet clothing. Body temperatures will drop faster when wet clothing is worn.
Obviously, it is best to stay indoors when it is too cold or too windy outside. But if they must go outside, keep the period of time spent outdoors very brief.
KEEP IN MIND: low temperatures that seem tolerable to the average person may actually be dangerouslycold for seniors.
Preventing skin tissue damage
When skin tissue is damaged due to cold temperatures, it is called a frostbite. The tissue damage can extend all the way down to the bone and be quite extensive. Frostbitten skin looks white, ashy, or grayish-yellow. The skin texture feels waxy, hard and numb.
Areas that are not well vascularized such as fingertips, ears, nose, cheeks and toes are especially prone to frostbites in cold weather. Seniors with heart disease or poor circulation are at increased risk of frostbites.
If you have to take an elderly loved one outdoors on a cold day, make sure all parts of the body are well covered with socks, gloves and scarves. If he or she complains that their skin starts to hurt or change colour, go indoors immediately.
Run cold hands, feet or any part of the body in warm water to warm it up – never use hot water.
Falls can be fatal
It sounds scary, but it’s true. Falls can result in chronic pain, reduced mobility, loss of independence and even death.
Falls is the leading cause of injury-related hospitalization and a rising cause of death in senior populations in Canada. The average Canadian senior had to stay in hospital 10 days longer for falls than for any other cause.
A common consequence that is often not discussed when people talk about falls is that seniors who have experienced a bad fall can become extremely fearful of falling, which causes anxiety, social isolation and even depression.
With that said, lets discuss some actionable steps we can take to reduce the risk of falling for seniors.
During the winter months, it is important to make sure walkways and steps to the home are well shovelled and cleared of snow and ice. The city of Toronto provides this service to eligible seniors. It can also be an option to hire someone privately or solicit the help of neighbours.
Take a look around the exterior of the house to see what modifications can be made to make it safer for seniors when getting in and out of the house. Consider lowering the steps to the porch and installing handrails leading to the front door.
Walking canes can help provide stability (and confidence!) for seniors walking in winter weather. Use an ice pick-like attachment that fits onto the ends for better grip. (Otherwise, replace the rubber tip of walking canes before it is worn smooth.) And of course, wear winter appropriate shoes or boots with non-skid soles.
Driving safely in the winter
Before the winter season starts, make sure to have your car “winterized”. This means to prepare your car for the winter – fill up on antifreeze windshield fluid, change to winter tires, change the wiper blades, check the battery (fill with distilled water if needed), check the anti-freeze in the radiator. Needless to say, bring your car into a shop if you are unfamiliar with these things.
One of the easiest but most important things you can do is to stock your car with emergency supplies: jumper cables, a flashlight, warm blankets, an ice scraper, a first aid kit, a shovel, a bag of salt, sand or cat litter, a portable air compressor or spare tire, and – especially for diabetic passengers – granola bars.
It may be silly to mention in this day and age, but always make sure to have a working cell phone when driving in bad weather.
If the senior is driving him or herself, it is a good idea to let a family member or someone know when they expect to arrive so that someone can check on them if they are late.
Winter weather can be challenging and inconvenient for many people, but it presents a serious health risk for vulnerable seniors. By being aware and responsive, you can take proactive measures to help keep seniors safe in cold weather.
Vidal Home Care can help alleviate the stress of care. See how we can help, or contact us today at 1-888-97 VIDAL for a free consultation.
Government of Canada. “Seniors’ Falls in Canada: Second Report” Web 2018
Government of Canada. “Seniors’ Falls in Canada – Infograhic” Web 2018