Winter has firmly set in, with the mercury dropping below 0°C for the first time in January. For the elderly, this can be a lonely, frightening time, with increased risks of becoming ill or injured.
Age UK state that an elderly person dies every seven minutes from the winter cold in the UK, with economic and social factors combining to create difficult circumstances. Recent figures indicate that up to 60% of elderly people will ration heating to save money, while 40% are considering reducing their spending on food to supplement heating costs. Over 50% believed that their pension would not be sufficient even to cover a reduced heating bill.
Most of the health complaints that effect the elderly at this time of year can be avoided with prior planning. So, here’s the key risks to look out for and how to minimise them.
The effects of adverse weather on the health of the elderly
Being stuck inside each winter in care homes exposes elderly people to colds or flu. In addition to symptoms potentially becoming much more severe for elderly patients, viruses weaken the immune system and can lead to more serious conditions, such as pneumonia.
Advice: The government urges everyone aged 60+ to get the free flu vaccine, regardless of their current state of health. Maintaining adequate vitamin intake can be difficult, but would help to support the immune system.
Icy conditions and longer hours of darkness are both factors in increased rates of falls each winter. The elderly are more likely to require a lengthy treatment programme for a broken hip or related injury, while hypothermia could become a concern if left lying unable to move. Car accidents on difficult roads also contribute and can lead to the same outcomes.
Advice: Senior citizens are urged not to drive unless in emergencies, and should carry extra blankets and high energy food in case of a breakdown. When walking, it helps to stick to gritted and publicly visible routes. Those at home should have a call button for emergencies.
With travel for visits becoming more difficult in winter, elderly loved ones can often inadvertently be left alone for long spells during the winter months. This isolation, combined with the effects of reduced light and vitamin D intake, can result in depression and anxiety, which in turn exacerbate existing health issues.
Advice: You can help elderly loved ones to feel less isolated by setting up a localised support network of neighbours and friends to stop by when you’re not around, or introduce them to technology like video calls to help them stay in touch.
Over half of deaths from hypothermia occur amongst those aged over 60. Venturing out into the elements is the riskiest time, with limited mobility and the possibility of injury making it more likely that they will remain exposed for longer. It can even happen in the home, if the property is not heated to an adequate temperate.
Advice: Older people should be encouraged to add extra layers of clothing whether inside or outside. An ambient temperature of 19°C is recommended for the home, and they should be able to call on help quickly should the boiler breakdown.
Fiona Lowry, CEO of The Good Care Group, commented: “Our live-in care services, provided by highly trained carers who form real relationships with our clients, ensure that your loved ones will never be left isolated. Our research also shows that with our Falls Reduction programme, our carers can reduce falls risk 100%, and they also work to maintain your loved ones’ health, warmth and safety at all times. Live-in carers are a lifeline to make sure elderly people are more independent, happier, and have greater dignity in their own homes, giving families peace of mind whatever the weather.”