Columbia University Medical Center

Avoiding the Hazards of Winter for Older Adults

winterNEW YORK (January 2014) — Winter is a time for added caution if you or someone in your family is an older adult. It is the season for falls, slips on icy streets, and other dangers that can be especially harmful for older adults.

“Something as simple as a fall can be devastating for older men and women,” says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, chief of geriatric medicine and aging at NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “Before the cold weather arrives, it is important to prepare.”

Dr. Granieri addresses some of the most pressing concerns mature adults have about their health and safety during the winter:

  • The flu. Influenza is a serious illness that can be fatal in older adults, who often have chronic medical conditions. The vaccine offers some, if not complete, protection against the flu and its consequences and can be administered as early as September. The flu season begins in mid-October and runs through March.
  • Hypothermia. Keep your thermostat set to at least 65 degrees to prevent hypothermia. Hypothermia kills about 600 Americans every year, half of whom are 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, keeping the temperature at 65 or higher, even when you are not at home, will help prevent pipes from freezing.
  • Icy streets. Navigating through icy streets can be intimidating. Wear comfortable shoes with anti-slip soles. If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip before it is worn smooth and becomes slippery on the wet ice. It may be a good idea to have someone walk with you during those days.
  • House fires. Make sure your smoke alarms are working. You should also have working carbon monoxide alarms.
  • Falling in the home. Winter means fewer hours of daylight. Older people often need brighter lights in the home. You may also have difficulty adjusting to changes in light, and different levels of lighting may increase the risk of slip and falls. Make sure there are no great lighting contrasts from one room to another. Also, use night lights, especially in the bathroom, and don’t have loose extension cords lying around—tape them to the floor. Make sure rugs are not wrinkled or torn in a way that can trip you as you walk.
  • Strenuous activities. Try to avoid strenuous activities like shoveling snow. You should ask your doctor if this level of activity is advisable. If you must shovel, warm up your body with a few stretching exercises before you begin and be sure to take frequent breaks throughout.
  • Dehydration. Drink at least four or five glasses of fluid every day. This should not change just because it is winter. You may not feel as thirsty as you do in the summer months, but as you get older your body can dehydrate more quickly, putting you at greater risk for complications from a number of illnesses and also changing how your body responds to certain medications.
  • Winter itch. This usually occurs because of dry skin. Wear more protective creams and lotions to prevent the dry and itchy skin commonly experienced in the colder months, when humidity levels are lower. You should apply them after bathing and at least once daily.
  • Home emergencies. For older persons living alone, it is a good idea to have a way to communicate quickly with other persons or medical personnel. If you have a cell phone, keep it handy. Another option is a personal emergency response system—a device worn around the neck or on a bracelet that can summon help if needed.
  • If you are a caregiver, please remember to check on your loved one frequently. Offer to shop for her or him and check on medications when the weather is very cold and snowy.  And remember to remind any person who interacts with her/him to get a flu shot.

For more information, patients may call (866) NYP-NEWS.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, based in New York City, is one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive hospitals, with some 2,600 beds. In 2012, the Hospital had nearly 2 million inpatient and outpatient visits, including 12,758 deliveries and 275,592 visits to its emergency departments. NewYork-Presbyterian’s 6,144 affiliated physicians and 20,154 staff provide state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine at six major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division and NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital. One of the most comprehensive health care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the nation’s leading medical colleges: Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For more information, visit www.nyp.org.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.

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