Winter Safety Tips for Older People

older woman and her daughter in winter

Winter is here, and, for many Americans, so are snow, ice and chilly winds. While it can be a beautiful time of year, with a dusting of snow covering the houses and trees, the elements can be quite an obstacle, especially if you are an older adult.

How cold is too cold?
Everyone gets chilly in the winter months. But, how cold is too cold, and how do you know when it can pose health risks?

The precise limit for when you need to stay inside may vary with the individual, but it's best to avoid prolonged exposure in extreme cold. If the temperature dips well below zero, Mayo Clinic advises everyone to avoid exposure to the outdoors. Older people and people with conditions like asthma, heart problems or Raynaud's phenomenon may want to stay inside even when it's less frigid.

And be sure to consider the wind chill, which can make a cold day more dangerous. A rainy day also can make you more prone to frostbite or hypothermia, because you can't keep your body temperature high when you're soaked.

Watch your feet
If you can't avoid going out in the cold, always layer warm clothes and don a hat, gloves and warm shoes and socks.

If you're going for a walk, consider asking a friend or family member to accompany you. Take caution to avoid slipping on ice, because falls in your older years can lead to fractures or disability. Keep an eye on the ground and try to identify ice, including black ice, in the path ahead of you. In addition, invest in the correct footwear. For instance, sturdy, low-heeled shoes with a deep, nonskid rubber tread will be much more efficient at preventing falls than sneakers. You may also want to consider ice grippers that attach to shoes or boots or Nordic poles for extra stability.

If you're unsure whether terrain is icy, proceed with caution and walk with your toes pointed outward taking short, flat steps like a penguin.

Heat your home properly and safely
When staying indoors to avoid the cold, be cautious about home heating safety, because heating systems can cause fires. Individuals who are age 65 or older are more than twice as likely to die in a home fire, compared to younger people, reports the National Fire Protection Association.

Space heaters are great at keeping select rooms warm and cozy, but they can be dangerous. If you use one, make sure there is at least three feet of cleared out space surrounding it, so nearby items won't catch fire. Some of the newer models automatically shut off if they fall or are knocked over.

If you use a fireplace to stay warm, make sure there is a glass door or screen in front of the flames to catch flying sparks or rolling logs that could potentially start a fire on a nearby rug, carpet or piece of furniture.