Search our Blog

Search our Blog

Monday, March 9, 2015

Don't Let Winter Freeze You Out

Winter poses difficulties for older adults with the added danger of serious falls on ice and snow, a greater sensitivity to cold and increased isolation. But there are ways to weather the cold, snowy months and decrease the gloom and discomfort.

Winter offers challenges for most people but for older adults it can pose more serious difficulties. It’s not just the increased danger of serious falls on slippery sidewalks, but also the fact that the cold affects older people more. And because it’s more difficult to get out in the snow and cold, our sense of isolation increases. Seniors who already curbed their nighttime driving because of vision problems must cut back on activities even earlier with the shorter amount of daylight. (Those who live in the southern regions of the country can start feeling smug and thankful for escaping from all that.)

But there are ways to weather the cold, snowy months and decrease the gloom and discomfort. Even small measures can increase your comfort level—on a practical level like making sure your car is winterized and, just as importantly, simple acts you can do for your body and soul.

Maybe one of the hardest aspects of winter is asking for help. Many of us don’t want to admit we can’t do it all. It’s hard to hire or ask someone else to clear the driveway or drive us to the doctor, because it feels like we’re losing some of our independence. Yet it’s sometimes necessary to admit we can’t do everything we did when younger and that we are sometimes dependent on others. Asking for help can feel daunting, but the neighbor kid might be happy for the chance to make some extra money by shoveling your driveway, and you’ll make one of the church volunteers feel like they’re doing something good if they can drive you to the grocery store.

What Causes SAD?

About one in four people are susceptible to the winter doldrums, marked by fatigue and food cravings caused by biological changes. The more severe seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects 11 million Americans with more serious signs of depression (“Beating Winter's Woes,” WebMD).

Both conditions are caused by winter's shorter days, which disrupt our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. How severely each individual is affected is based on a combination of factors—geography, genetics and individual brain chemistry. “With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and which has been linked to depression,” WebMD reports. “The farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you'll have some degree of winter depression.” For example, only about 1 percent of Florida residents suffer from wintertime blues compared to about half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada.

Sunlight hitting the eye activates a body clock that is similar to the system that controls seasonal breeding and hibernation in animals, according to psychiatrist Daniel F. Kripke, who conducted the world's first controlled study of bright-light therapy for depression in 1981, reports WebMD. This system is connected to our brain’s hardwiring for appetite, which might explain the reason for food cravings in winter.
Practical Steps

Driving. If you can, avoid driving during and after winter storms, but if you must drive, be prepared:

  • Make sure you have good snow tires.
  • Keep the gas tank full.
  • Keep an emergency travel kit in the trunk, including a snow shovel, blankets, flashlight, water and first-aid kit.
  • Have your car winterized, which includes having the antifreeze, tires and windshield wipers checked and changed if necessary.
  • Make sure any roadside assistance memberships are up to date.

Heaters. It feels good to cozy up to a space heater for extra warmth, and the small portable units mean you don’t have to heat the whole house or apartment but only the room where you spend most of your time. Make sure, however, that you take precautions. When using a portable heater, plug the heater directly into an outlet, not to an extension cord. Make sure the outlet is not overloaded and wiring is not frayed. Keep the area around the heater clear of furniture, newspaper or other flammable materials and be careful to avoid tripping over cords.

Using a fireplace, gas heater or lanterns can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure to check the batteries on your carbon monoxide detector and buy an updated one if needed.

To save money and keep your living space warmer, you can close off rooms you don’t use, such as spare bedrooms or basement or storage areas. You might also consider getting an energy audit, to see if insulating or repairing cracks will stop heat from escaping and cold from entering. Caulk windows, use weather stripping around doors and put rugs in front of doors you don't use.

Storms. To avoiding running out in the middle of the storm (or bitter cold or icy conditions) for groceries, keep your pantry well stocked in winter. To be prepared for possible power outages, keep a supply of nonperishable foods like peanut butter, bread, cereal or apples—foods that don't need to be heated, and a nonelectric can opener.

At the same time, check that you have flashlights and batteries (or candles), jugs of drinking water, a battery-powered radio, warm blankets and supply of needed medications.

Warming the Body. Studies show that older people are more likely to have slightly colder body temperatures than younger ones due to a decrease in circulation as blood vessel walls lose their elasticity and the insulating fat layer under the skin thins. As people age, their metabolic responses to the cold may be slower (New York Times).

Other factors that increase sensitivity to cold are hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and thyroid conditions; drugs such as beta blockers, which can reduce the circulation of blood to hands and feet; and calcium channel blockers, used in hypertension, which relax the blood vessels.

All these factors make older adults more susceptible to hypothermia, and the loss of heat can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if not stopped. That means that we need to dress more warmly than the 20-year-old who is outdoors in 30-degree weather wearing a T-shirt and shorts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than half of hypothermia-related deaths were of people over the age of 65. Don’t be afraid to look unfashionable. Bundle yourself up in layers of loose-fitting clothing; wear warm socks and hat, a heavy coat, gloves and scarf.

Snow and ice. Health experts advise people over 65—especially those with a history of high blood pressure and heart disease—to avoiding shoveling snow. The combination of strenuous work and blood vessels constricted by the cold air raises the risk of heart attack. More brittle bones as we age also increases the danger of falls, which is a leading cause of death from injury in men and women over the age of 65. Ask your health-care provider if it's safe for you to shovel snow or do other hard work in the cold.

If you need to be outside, make sure you wear shoes with good traction and nonskid soles, and consider using ski or hiking poles for walking when it’s slick or snowy. Back inside, remove your shoes because often snow and ice attach to the soles and, once melted, can lead to slippery conditions inside. A newer product on the market is ice cleats or grippers, a combination of plastic and metal that slips over your shoes and provides traction on ice. The best known brand is Yaktrax. But be careful to remove them when indoors because they can catch on carpets and cause a fall.

More sunlight. The shorter days, especially farther north, mean less sunlight, which is linked to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (see sidebar, “What Causes SAD?”). Getting more sunlight helps alleviate SAD. Because it can be difficult for older folks to get outside in winter, you can use artificial light. Light boxes, or sun boxes, use special fluorescent tubes to simulate the sun's natural rays. For best results, use a light box daily, in the early morning, and for 30 minutes to two hours at a time.

Keeping Soul Together.

Just as important as keeping your car tuned and your body going is your mental and emotional state.

Keep moving. Exercise is always a mood booster and more important in winter than ever, when our natural inclination might be to go into hibernation. You can sign up for yoga, swimming or other exercise classes at your local recreation center. If you can’t or don’t want to drive, many communities offer low-cost or free rides for seniors and the handicapped. Or you can stay home and do yoga with the help of a DVD or do some shuffling around the house to the tune of your favorite music. In any case, music is guaranteed to improve your mood.

Take a trip. If you can’t afford a trip to Hawaii or Florida, or a cruise, sometimes just driving a few hundred miles south can make a difference in the weather. Or take a day trip to a museum or the next town over for lunch. Someplace like a botanical garden or indoor water park can replicate a bit of spring or summer. If you don’t want to drive, see if your local senior center offers day trips or longer trips.

Get on the Internet. If you can’t get out in the world, have the world come to you through your computer. Find online discussion groups on topics you’re interested in (history or religion, for example) or take courses online. If you need to laugh, there’s no shortage of videos of cats and dogs doing funny things. Reconnect with old friends you haven’t talked to since high school, using Facebook or Google.

Enjoy the indoors. If you’re stuck inside, make the most of it. If you like to cook or bake, make some stews, soups or cookies and share with neighbors, some of who may be similarly housebound. Invite a friend or neighbor over to play cards or Scrabble or do a jigsaw puzzle. Buy an assortment of teas or hot chocolate and a warm robe or blanket. This would be a good time to take on those household projects you’ve been putting off, like sorting through and labeling all your photos and sharing with family and friends. Build that model plane or ship that’s been sitting in a box for decades. To get spring started earlier, buy flower bulbs such as paper whites, amaryllis or tulips to put in indoor pots. Tackle a book you’ve always wanted to read.


“Take precautions during severe winter weather,” Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio

“Beating Winter's Woes,” WebMD

“Be Prepared: the Key to Senior Safety During the Winter and Holidays,” Comfort Keepers

“Seniors can prepare now to stay healthy this winter,” Healthy Aging Partnership

“Resources: Winter Safety Tips for Older Adults,”

“Seniors need to be ready for winter's challenges,” Nov. 2, 2014, Mansfield News Journal

“Protect Yourself in Icy Temperatures, Heavy Snow,” Nov. 11, 2014, HealthDay News, Medline Plus

“Staying Safe: Cold Weather Safety & Prevention Tips for Seniors,” Nov. 11, 2014, Griswold Home Care

“Why Am I So Cold?” Nov. 15, 2012, New York Times)

Don't Let Winter Freeze You Out was featured in the January 2015 Senior Spirit newsletter. 

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors