Fight Back Against Winter - How to Support an Older Parent When It's Cold Outside
by Brandee Cowley, RN BSN, Apostolic Christian Skylines Home Care Services
Winter can be a dangerous time for older adults, especially those who live alone. Cold weather, slippery walking and driving conditions, shorter days, seasonal influenza, isolation from family and friends, and seasonal depression combine to make winter a challenging time for seniors, especially those living an independent lifestyle. It’s a time when family members need to play a role in ensuring the safety, health and welfare of an older parent.
Reduced hours of daylight contribute to increasing isolation for an independent senior. Many older drivers are not able to drive after sundown or prefer not to. Earlier sunset—as early as 4:40 in Peoria—means that participating in early evening activities becomes a problem. Even during daylight hours, roads can be unpredictably icy and snow-covered. Shopping for essentials such as groceries may suffer, potentially leading to malnutrition and weight loss.
Winter is also flu season. Concern about contracting seasonal influenza can cause a reluctance to go out in public to the shopping mall, the grocery store or even the local donut shop.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons, can cause feelings of moodiness and depression in the winter. Other signs of SAD include changes in appetite or weight, problems with sleeping, low energy, and difficulty concentrating. Symptoms may appear in the late fall or early winter and usually go away during the sunnier spring and summer seasons.
The importance of having the home heating and cooling system in good working order increases in the winter. A malfunctioning furnace can release carbon monoxide into indoor air and cause illness and even death. To save money, some older adults turn down the thermostat to save money on the heating bill. However, the National Institutes of Health says that hypothermia is a danger for vulnerable older adults because their bodies cannot withstand the cold as long as younger people. Cold indoor temperatures can even increase the risk of falls: a European study found that as little as 45 minutes of exposure to chilly indoor temperatures can impact walking ability.
How to Fight Back
Some things you can do to make winter safer, healthier, and more enjoyable for an older family member include:
- Drop in occasionally. Observe. Is the home warm enough? Is the refrigerator well stocked? Are the walks and entry ways free of ice and snow? Are there any changes in your parent’s mood and disposition?
- If they live nearby, host dinner once a week, either “carry in” to your parent’s home or in your home (you provide transportation). If you have siblings or other relatives who are able, take turns hosting. Sharing meals builds bonds; you may even be creating a family tradition.
- Arrange for snow shoveling and salting of all exterior walkways.
- When the weather is bad, offer to escort your family member to church services and activities. Church attendance is important to many seniors and missing services and friends may increase feeling of isolation.
- Head off malnutrition. Offer to accompany on trips to the grocery store and other shopping. Online grocery ordering and home delivery are becoming increasingly available. Offer to help with ordering and have the groceries delivered.
- Watch for signs and symptoms of SAD. While it is normal to have some “down days,” if you see changes in sleeping patterns and appetite, increased alcohol consumption or feelings of hopelessness, their health care provider should be consulted.
- Vitamin D can replace some of the sunshine lost in the winter. Consult with their health care provider for the correct dosage.
- Make sure the heating system is safe. Have it checked before every heating season by a professional to be sure it is ready for winter. Make sure there are carbon monoxide and smoke detectors installed in the home and change the batteries annually.
- Consider purchasing or leasing a personal emergency response system equipped with fall detection. A mobile system will provide 24 hour coverage nearly everywhere.
- Get an annual flu immunization shot, if possible with the high-dose vaccine, which is formulated for seniors. Because the vaccine does not cover all possible strains of influenza, continue to be alert for signs and symptoms of flu.
- If circumstances prevent your direct involvement in the day-to-day life of your parent, consider hiring a licensed home care agency for the winter. A caregiver can provide local transportation to shopping and medical appointments, plan and prepare meals to ensure diet is healthy, and make sure the home is comfortable and safe.
AC Skylines Home Care provides in–home care and nursing services. For more information and a no–charge consultation, call AC Skylines Home Care Services at (309) 689–5343 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.acskylineshomecare.org or Facebook.com/ACskylinesHomeCare.
Apostolic Christian Skylines’ continuing care retirement community offers senior living options ranging from independent living to skilled nursing care. For more information, call Apostolic Christian Skylines at (309) 683-2500 or send email to email@example.com. Visit www.acskylines.org or Facebook.com/acskylines.