Avoiding winter pressures and helping people to stay well during the cold months
Zoe Elkins, Head of Care Strategy, The Good Care Group
Why is it harder to stay well in the winter?
As winter approaches the nights get longer and the temperature begins to drop. People all over the country start preparing for the cold months ahead, and NHS hospitals begin organising and planning for their busiest time of year, commonly known as ‘winter pressures’. In the extreme winter of 2012/13 there were an estimated 31,100 excess deaths in the UK, and the colder it was, the higher the mortality rate. But what are the challenges facing older people during this chilly season, and why do we see a rise in illness and hospital admissions?
Colds and flu
Contrary to common belief, cold weather does not cause colds. Quite the contrary – cold viruses thrive less well in very cold conditions. So why do we see a peak in colds during the winter months? The truth is that when it gets cold outside, we tend to stay indoors. We remain in closer proximity with others, making it easier for cold viruses to be transmitted, and we turn up the heating, creating the perfect environment for viruses to flourish.
The influenza or flu virus, on the other hand, is at its strongest during the winter months. The flu virus thrives in cold and dry conditions. This virus tends to start with sudden onset of a high fever which then progresses into chills, headache, muscle aches and a loss of appetite. Flu can also lead to more serious conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia. Those whose immune systems might be compromised, like the elderly or chronically ill, can be at greatest risk.
Mobility and falls
Bone conditions such as osteoarthritis are often said to be worse in cold damp weather and people will often move around less when experiencing pain. Adverse or icy weather is another reason for older people to tend to want to stay indoors. Less mobilising during the winter months can lead to a decrease in muscle tone, balance and confidence, all of which can cause an increase in the risk of falls. Those who do venture out in the icy weather are also at a much higher risk of suffering a slip, trip or fall.
Respiratory conditions and other health complaints
Those people who suffer with asthma or other respiratory problems will often find these exacerbated by the cold weather. Heart and circulatory problems can also be worsened by dropping temperatures and viruses. Respiratory diseases show the strongest seasonal variation.
The number of older people dying from hypothermia during the winter months has doubled in the past 5 years. Those at greatest risk are people living in poorly heated houses, and those who are immobile and therefore less able to generate their own heat.
How does the winter affect older people?
Viruses can have a devastating effect on older people, especially those who may already be frail and vulnerable. The risk of falling is higher and older people are more likely to suffer a fracture following a fall than younger people. Ironically, the fear of falling can lead people to lose confidence and move around less, thus reducing their mobility and independence, and further increasing the risk of falling at the same time. Adverse weather, illness and fear of falling can increase isolation and loneliness as well as impacting on physical well being.
How can older people stay well during the winter months?
There are plenty of things that we can do to keep well and stay safe during the winter months and avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions is of benefit to everyone.
Encourage movement, walking and gentle exercise every day – keeping mobile maintains blood circulation, balance, general health, strength, independence and confidence. Exercises can even be done whilst sitting in an arm chair.
Wear warm layers and have hot drinks regularly. If a person has trouble moving around, a flask is a great way of ensuring a hot drink is always to hand. Check boilers, heating, lagging and insulation, get a carbon monoxide alarm fitted and ensure that all gas appliances are ‘gas safe’.
Stay in touch
Loneliness is a terrible problem for some older people. Stay connected; a phone call or friendly visit can make a huge difference. Find out about local social clubs or befriending charities and ensure that neighbours’ phone numbers are kept to hand. A mobile phone can be useful and an alarm pendant is literally a lifeline for some people.
Maintaining a balanced diet is important for all aspects of health and well being. Make sure the cupboards and freezer are stocked with food in case it becomes more difficult to get out later on. Having good nutritional input and being well hydrated can reduce the risk of falls and falls related fractures, and will help keep the immune system strong. Ask your doctor about nutritional supplements and vitamins which may be of benefit.
Wash your hands
Good infection control is the key to avoiding coughs and colds. Washing hands regularly and minimising contact with sick people is key. Maintain good personal hygiene and a clean house to reduce the risk of infection.
Flu vaccinations are free to older and vulnerable people and are available at many pharmacies as well as most GP surgeries. Carers are also entitled to free flu vaccinations. The best time of year to get a flu jab is early autumn, before the winter draws in.
How can The Good Care Group help?
The Good Care Group offers round the clock, one to one live in care and support for older people who want to remain in their own homes and communities. A hand-picked and carefully matched professional carer can support exercise and mobility programmes whilst managing the risk of falling. Home cooked meals are provided as well as companionship and social support. Infection control is a priority and medical conditions are proactively managed in conjunction with the GP. Having someone on hand day and night to ensure the house is safe and warm and deal with emergencies that may arise can give peace of mind to older people and their loved ones. We provide permanent care or short periods of respite care for 2 weeks or more.
To find out more contact us: