"Caring in Cold Times –
Winter Caregiving Tips to Maximize Health and Safety"
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Due to cold temperatures, snow and ice, and the prevalence of viruses, winter poses extra health and safety risks, especially for seniors. Following are numerous ways to minimize the risk of problems for a frail relative in your care.
- If you haven't already done so, arrange for your relative to get a flu shot. Those over 65, especially if they have chronic illnesses, are at high risk for complications from influenza, which is the fifth leading cause of death among adults in that age group. Flu season typically peaks between January and March.
- Ensure your relative takes in plenty of fluids, as the dryness caused by heating systems can lead to dehydration. (Check with his/her doctor, though, if fluid restrictions are in place.)
- Serve foods rich in vitamin C, to help ward off viruses and infections. Serve warm foods and beverages to raise body temperature.
- Limit intake of alcohol, as it’s a diuretic (dehydrating) and also speeds up body heat loss.
- Stock up on non-perishable foods, and refill prescriptions at least a week before they run out. Stock up on bottled water as well, in case pipes freeze.
- Ensure the indoor temperature remains above 18 C (65 F), ideally no lower than 20 C (68 F). Hypothermia is a risk to seniors even indoors, due to the decreased circulation that tends to accompany aging, as well as to inactivity, illness and some medications.
- Ask your relative’s doctor or pharmacist to review his/her medications and advise if any of them affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
- Dress your relative warmly, in loose-fitting layers. Don’t forget warm footwear, too. Ensure slippers offer adequate support, fit well and have a skid-resistant sole. Specialty clothing companies offer flexible styles with Velcro closures that adjust to any width, and features such as back zippers that relieve heel pressure. They also offer super-stretch comfort socks (for a non-constricting fit), and warm, terry socks with skid-resistant treads.
- Ensure your relative has several layers of warm bedding.
- Keep throws in the living room and bedroom, for easy access to extra warmth on drafty days and nights.
- If your relative lives alone, check on him/her daily during severe cold weather. If conditions make it unsafe for you to go out, telephone in the morning and evening. If you live out of town, arrange for a local friend or neighbor to make a daily visit or phone check. Supply your relative with a list of local businesses that offer delivery service, including grocery stores and pharmacies, so he/she doesn’t feel the need to venture out in bad weather.
- Prepare for a power outage by creating a kit containing candles, proper candle holders, matches, flashlights or a battery-powered lamp, a battery-operated radio, fresh batteries, blankets, bottled water and non-perishable food. Store it in an accessible place. Also stock up on wood if you own a fireplace. Keep a list of emergency numbers--including the hydro company--by the phone.
- Buy rechargeable flashlights that plug into the wall and automatically turn on when the power goes out. Some include a nightlight feature.
- Ensure heat registers and vents are unobstructed.
- Exercise caution with space heaters, which can pose a significant fire hazard: Keep them several feet away from walls and combustible objects, as well as out of traffic areas. Watch that the electrical cord does not pose a tripping hazard. When buying a heater, look for one with an automatic shut-off safety feature.
- Check smoke detector batteries monthly and replace them regularly, bearing in mind that fires are more prevalent in winter.
- Place candles where they won’t be knocked over, well out of reach of your relative and pets, and away from lampshades, curtains and other flammable materials.
- Ensure any fires--whether from a fireplace or burning candles--are extinguished before you go out or retire to bed.
- Remain indoors during storms and extreme cold. Take into account not only the thermometer temperature but also the wind-chill factor, usually included in weather reports.
- When you venture out, ensure your relative has a warm coat, scarf, gloves or mittens (the latter are warmer) and a hat. If he or she is weight-bearing, a pair of boots with good treads is a must. You, too, should have non-skid boots, in case you need to provide hands-on assistance.
- If your relative uses a cane, buy an ice pick that fits onto the end of it and folds up when not in use. These are available at home health care stores.
- Keep walkways clear of snow and ice (stock ice-melting compound for spreading on slippery porches, walks and driveways). If you have health problems or a large property, consider purchasing a snow blower, or hire a young neighbor or a snow clearing service.
- Keep your car well-maintained and the fuel tank at least half full. Ensure the following emergency supplies are on board: a working flashlight with extra batteries, emergency flares, blankets, hats and mittens, and non-perishable snacks such as granola bars. A cell phone also comes in handy, to summon help quickly if you experience car trouble or are stranded in a storm. An auto club membership is another good idea. Always check the local weather report before heading out on the road, though. Avoid going out—with or without your relative--if a storm warning has been issued.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.