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Winter and Seniors: Ensuring Safety and Health When the 'Weather Outside is Frightful'

When the weather outside is frightful, there are a number of steps seniors can take - from nutrition and home safety to clothing and exercise - to ensure a safe and healthy winter season.

Exercise and Fitness

Many Americans reduce their physical activity during the winter months because of frigid temperatures and snow or icy conditions outdoors. But, says Evelyn O'Neill, manager of fitness at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center and coordinator of its "Get Up & Go" senior fitness program, that's no reason to stop exercising.

O'Neill says there are numerous options for seniors to keep in shape, many of them without having to leave home. Seniors can do flexibility, balancing and strength exercises in their kitchen or bedroom. These include circling the arms slowly to stretch the upper body, toe raises while standing at a kitchen counter, and balancing on one leg at a time.

In addition, she says, seniors can join mall walking clubs or, if they live in an apartment building, walk the hallways and staircases.

"You should feel a moderate sense of effort with these exercises," says O'Neill. "By doing them for just 30 minutes a day, you can help to maintain your strength and balance."

Snow Shoveling

snow shovelSeniors who need to shovel driveways and walkways should take special precautions. The easiest option is to hire someone to do this work. If this is not an option, seniors should go slow, lift small amounts of snow, and take frequent breaks. A sturdy, lightweight shovel can be used to push rather than lift snow. Seniors in poor health or with a heart condition should not shovel snow.

"If you feel dizzy or heavy in the chest," says Robert Schreiber, M.D., physician-in-chief at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, "stop shoveling immediately and seek medical attention."

Winter Nutrition

Unlike in warmer months, when fresh local produce is abundant, seniors often have a difficult time maintaining a healthful diet. Susan Hartery, a dietitian at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, says a multivitamin can help ensure that seniors get the recommended daily allowance of most vitamins and minerals. Extra Vitamin D is also essential because of limited outdoor activity (the body synthesizes Vitamin D from sunlight); she recommends taking a daily Vitamin D supplement.

Because winter weather is so unpredictable, she recommends that seniors keep extra food on hand in the freezer, as well as bottled or canned fruit juices and non-fat dry milk powder, in case of emergencies when they are unable to venture out to the store. Yogurt, eggs and cheese keep in the refrigerator for a while and are good sources of protein.

"If their living situation allows," she adds, "seniors may want to think about getting together with neighbors for potluck dinners on a regular basis during the winter. This could help add variety to their diet, not to mention the social benefits."

Proper Clothing

seniors in the snowWhenever going out in the winter months, seniors should remember to cover as much skin as possible. Layers of lightweight clothing allow for easy movement, as well as reducing layers as temperatures rise. Mittens, which keep hands warmer than gloves; hats, which prevent heat from escaping from your head; and scarves, which cover skin unprotected by collars, are all necessary cold weather gear.

"Hypothermia and frostbite," says Dr. Schreiber, "are real concerns for seniors, whose bodies aren't as resilient to the elements as they used to be. Proper clothing for winter conditions is essential to keeping seniors safe and warm."

Hearth and Home

John Bougas, director of engineering at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, says that as seniors prepare themselves for winter, they need to get their homes ready as well. He says they should ensure that their home is insulated properly and that windows are caulked to prevent drafts. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should also be tested to ensure they are working properly.

Thermostats should be set to 68 degrees to prevent hypothermia and to keep pipes from freezing. Bougas cautions against using electric space heaters, which the National Fire Protection Association says are the leading cause of home fires from December to February.

"It's also a good idea to keep a supply of fresh batteries, extra flashlights and a battery-operated radio available," Bougas says, "in case of power outages during storms or extreme weather."

Emergency Preparedness

Inevitably, the New England winter will bring a ferocious snowstorm that will close schools, strand motorists and maroon people in their homes. Dr. Schreiber says seniors need to plan in advance for such emergencies. By following weather forecasts on the radio or TV or in the newspaper, seniors can gauge when a storm will arrive and how much snow it will drop. Armed with this information, they can plan for adequate food and medical supplies.

Dr. Schreiber says seniors should keep at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food and water and at least a seven-day supply of prescription medications. If possible, they should have a programmable phone with emergency numbers entered for fire, police, ambulance, doctor, family members and neighbors.

"If extreme weather is forecast," Dr. Schreiber says, "seniors should ask friends or neighbors to check on them daily to help ensure their good health and safety."

Winter in New England can be a fun, fulfilling season for seniors - if they take the necessary precautions to protect their health and safety. And, remember, spring is only a few months away.

Above content provided by Hebrew SeniorLife in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2011

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(Off-site Primary Care Practices)
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