A Senior's Guide to Staying Healthy in Winter

Winter brings many pleasant things: the holiday season, picturesque snowfalls, and the ideal conditions for certain sports. However, it also brings many things that aren’t so pleasant, like frigid weather, slippery sidewalks, and the dreaded flu season. No one looks forward to these parts of winter, but for seniors, they can be particularly troublesome. This post offers tips to help seniors deal with the more challenging parts of the winter months while staying as healthy as possible during the chilliest part of the year. 

Staying Safe in Snowy Weather

Snow-covered and icy sidewalks and roads can present dangers to anyone, but they are particularly hazardous for seniors, especially those who may struggle with mobility. Winter storms can force seniors to stay in their homes for days at a time, and the chilly weather can exacerbate existing circulation issues. To help keep your elderly loved ones safe and warm throughout the season, make sure that they are equipped to handle whatever weather conditions might come their way. 

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Clean Pathways. For seniors who live in apartments, condominiums, or retirement residences, the building management likely provides shovelling services. However, if your elderly loved one(s) still live in a house, it’s important to make sure that their sidewalk is adequately cleaned throughout the winter in order to keep them safely on their feet. If there are not family members in the area who can assist with snow removal, explore the possibility of paying a neighbour to clean your loved one’s walkway, or hire a professional service. It’s also a good idea to keep some sidewalk salt near the door, so that your senior loved one can sprinkle it along their path before walking outside. 

A study from McGill University shows that seniors are twenty percent more likely to fall outside if freezing rain is falling, and the lead researcher cautions that in these weather conditions, the best course of action may be to stay indoors. The study also found that the rate of hip fractures increases about twelve percent in the winter months. 

If you’re worried that your senior loved one is at risk of falling in the winter, you may want to look into getting them “ice claws,” or traction cleats, which can be attached to the bottom of any shoe to provide better grip and greater steadiness. 

Keep Things Stocked. It’s especially important for seniors who live in areas which frequently get snowstorms to keep a supply of all necessary items in the home - but with the current state of the climate, nature can surprise us, so it’s a good idea for everyone to be prepared for a weather event. Be sure to refill all prescriptions before your senior loved one has run out of medication, so that they always have a supply of medication adequate enough for a few days on hand. Make sure that there are nonperishable food items stocked in your loved one’s cabinets, and that they have flashlights (candles are a fire risk, so opt for flashlights or faux candles that use batteries) and a battery-operated radio. It’s also important that seniors have a supply of warm clothes and blankets in case the power goes out and they need to bundle up to keep warm. 

If your loved one has medication that needs to be refrigerated or uses medical equipment which requires a power source, and they live in a snowy climate, you may even want to explore the possibility of purchasing a generator. 

Wear Warm Clothing. At the beginning of the season, make sure that your senior has all the necessary winter gear, including a warm coat, a hat, mittens, and a scarf, and a pair of boots designed to provide traction on snow and ice. 

The winter weather can be particularly difficult for those whose extremities often feel cold due to poor circulation. For seniors with cold hands and feet, a thick pair of mittens or gloves and some thermal socks can provide a bit of extra warmth. 

Staying Healthy During Cold & Flu Season

Unfortunately, winter is often a season of sickness. Most of us know that winter means cold and flu season is upon us, but not everyone is aware that the winter weather can also affect our mental health. During the winter months, it's not only important to take precautions in order to prevent physical illness, but also to take measures to ward off mental illness and to commit to practicing healthy habits. 

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Get the Flu Shot. As long as your elderly loved one does not have a history of adverse reactions, they should get the flu shot every year, since people over 65 are at greater risk of developing complications should they get influenza. 

It’s also important that all family members who interact regularly with your senior loved one get the flu shot - this will help to keep your senior loved one healthy, and it will benefit the health of your younger family members as well. If your loved one has a caregiver, it’s also important that they receive a vaccine to mitigate the risk that they’ll fall ill and infect your loved one. 

Get Natural Light. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that occurs most often in winter. It affects all segments of the population, though it does tend to appear more often in women than in men. Seniors who are already suffering from some symptoms of depression due to illness or feelings of isolation may be at greater risk for developing Seasonal Affective Disorder.

One of the main causes of SAD is reduced exposure to natural light, which helps to balance the body’s serotonin and melatonin levels. Therefore, one of the best ways to combat SAD is to spend some time in natural light on a daily basis. If this isn’t possible, phototherapy from a light box or “happy light” is another option. These lamps should be used with guidance from a doctor, so if you believe your loved one is at risk of developing SAD symptoms, make sure they speak with their doctor about preventative treatments. If you suspect your loved one has SAD, a doctor’s visit is also necessary in order to evaluate if medication or psychotherapy might be beneficial. 

Eat Balanced Meals. Eating well is important for people of all ages at all times of year, but the temptation to be a bit more lax with our diets often sets in during the winter: it’s cold, the grocery store might seem far away when there's so much snow to trudge through, and the early sunset can cause tiredness around dinnertime. Nonetheless, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet in order to stay in good health. Crockpot or slow cooker recipes are a great option for the winter since they produce hot meals that generally supply a fair number of servings. If you live near your loved one, you might consider bringing them a couple servings of a dish you’ve made, or visiting them in their own home and cooking with them. 

It’s also a good idea to ask your senior loved one if they need any assistance with trips to the grocery store in the winter. This might be something you or another family member can help with, but if it isn’t, a certified caregiver can accompany your loved one to the store and assist them with their shopping, and even their meal preparation. 

Staying Mentally and Physically Active

Winter can sometimes feel like a lazy season, especially in areas that experience bitter cold. With snowfall and strong winds outside, staying at home on the couch under a blanket with the television on can seem very appealing. However, it's important that seniors don't give into this temptation and try, instead, to stay both mentally and physically active throughout the winter months. Both mental and physical activity can combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, while mental activities are a great source of cognitive exercise, and physical activity helps to maintain health. If you notice that your loved one is spending a lot of evenings on the sofa, encourage them to try a new activity or two. 

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Stay Entertained with New Interests. Months spent indoors during the winter can cause boredom and malaise, especially for seniors with limited mobility or chronic illnesses. To prevent these feelings, seniors can partake in a wide variety of indoor activities during the winter season. 

Some seniors may want to try knitting, crochet, or cross-stitching; these are great activities not only because they provide mental stimulation, but because all of the effort involved takes form in the final product, which will be useful or decorative. Seniors who like to read might wish to join a book club or start a more informal book discussion group with friends. Seniors’ centres organize a variety of social activities like chess and bridge tournaments, offer classes geared toward seniors, and often bring in guest entertainers - as long as your loved one can safely get from their home to a seniors’ centre and back, these are wonderful options. 

Your loved one may also enjoy mental puzzles like sudoku. If your senior relative is technologically savvy, or you believe they might like doing activities on their phone or tablet, we have a post about online activities for seniors here. All of these activities can be done from the comfort of home, so they are ideal for the winter months. 

If you worry that your loved one may grow bored or lonely, and there are not family members or friends close by who can visit on a regular basis, you may want to explore the possibility of booking a few hours of companion care for your loved one each week. Caregivers can talk with your loved one, play games or do puzzles with them, provide company while they watch television shows, eat meals with them, and also help out with any tasks your loved one might find challenging. 

Engage in Physical Activities Indoors. Activities seniors might enjoy in warmer months, like walking outdoors, golfing, or doing tai chi in a park, often become treacherous or impossible during the winter. There are, however, lots of alternatives: walking outside can be replaced by "mall walking," which allows for a fairly long stroll while protected from the elements; golfing might be replaced by a water aerobics class; indoor yoga can take the place of outdoor tai chi, providing similar mental and physical benefits in a different setting. Find out what your loved one's favourite spring and summer activities are, and see if you can find a comparable option for winter. 

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Seniors don't have to dread the winter, but they do have to take some precautions to keep themselves healthy and safe during cold and snowy months. Once you've checked in to make sure your senior loved one is prepared for a weather event, stocked with warm clothing, and taking care of their health - and perhaps even encouraged them to partake in some new indoor activities - there is no reason that they won't be able to enjoy themselves and maintain their health throughout the season.