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The Bone Chill: Top 5 Ways to Stay Safe in Cold Weather

Winter is here, and while the season might begin with lights, cocoa and holiday cheer, the cold is going to be with us for the next few months. While it is important for everyone to stay on guard against winter’s dangers, seniors are especially vulnerable this season to illnesses, injuries from falls, or the general winter blues.

At Bethesda Senior Living Communities, our residents enjoy active social lives and have access to around-the-clock care, which mitigates the worst of winter’s bite. But for seniors living at home, here are a few recommendations for staying safe as winter’s chill settles in across the country.

1. Keep Warm Indoors
It’s easy to assume that just because you are indoors and away from the elements that you are safe from the cold. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, advises that living in a cold house, apartment or other building can actually cause hypothermia.

Seniors can lose body heat faster than when they were young, which puts them at risk even indoors. The NIA recommends setting your heat at 68 degrees or higher. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. The NIA also recommends wearing long johns under your clothes and using extra blankets at night.

2. Bundle Up Outdoors
Snow and ice are obvious hazards, but wind chill is often overlooked as another severe threat from cold weather, as it can lower your body temperature. Be sure to dress warmly if you must go out on chilly days, and wear loose layers of clothing for added warmth. A hat, gloves, scarf and waterproof raincoat can also protect you from the elements.

The NIA advises that cold hands and feet, a puffy or swollen face, pale skin and shivering are early signs of hypothermia. Later signs include slow movement, trouble walking, stiff and jerky arm or leg movements, shallow breathing and loss of consciousness.

You should pay special attention for these early warning signs in loved ones with early Alzheimer’s and dementia. They may be losing the ability to judge unsafe weather or may no longer dress appropriately for the cold.

Call 911 immediately if you believe someone has these warning signs.

3. Prepare for Bad Weather
Winter storms come on quickly, so stay alert and pay attention to your local weather. Before a cold snap or snowstorm arrives, be sure to have your automobile serviced. Check the oil, tire pressure, battery and wiper blades. Autos tend to fail under strain, so keep up with the preventative maintenance.

If you know a winter storm is coming, be sure to stock up on a variety of foods (not just the proverbial bread and milk), and prepare for possible power outages. Make sure your flashlight has fresh batteries, and that you have plenty of blankets. It’s also a good idea for seniors to have a system in place where a family member or friend checks in on them.

4. Stay Healthy
Seniors tend to get fewer colds than younger people, but when they do get sick, the risk is the illness lingers and develops into something more serious such as pneumonia. The best medicine, therefore, is prevention.

To stave off a winter cold, be sure to stay hydrated, get plenty of rest and eat a healthy variety of foods (including fruits and vegetables). Consider running a humidifier at night to keep the air moist. Not only does this help shorten the lifespan of viruses in your home, it also helps alleviate symptoms should you become ill.

5. Fight the Winter Blues
The short dark days of winter are associated with “seasonal affective disorder”—the technical term for the winter blues. It is normal for us all to feel a little low this season due to the lack of sunlight and warmth.

Icy conditions may make it difficult for seniors to get out and around, and the isolation compounds the effects of seasonal depression. It is important that seniors have someone who can look in on them. If you are a senior, consider arranging a check-in system with your family, neighbors or friends.

Our Communities Fight the Cold
In addition to heeding the above recommendations, our senior living communities take a number of special steps to combat the winter blues and guard against the chill.

For instance, slips and falls on wet or icy streets are a major risk for older adults on the go. Our communities provide three meals a day and offer scheduled transportation for shopping, errands and appointments as well as drop-off services so our residents can venture out safely in inclement weather.

To help guard against the winter blues, our residents enjoy regular exercise and fitness classes to improve strength, balance and mood. Additionally, social connections have proven to increase alertness, reduce the impact of memory loss and stave off depression. Even for our most introverted residents benefit from daily contact with our friendly team and new friends.

Finally, our team members monitor our residents’ nutrition, weight and hydration, and assess their apartments for fall risks such as cluttered furniture or loose rugs. Hydration and trip hazards are leading causes of falls all year long, not just in winter.

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