Caregiver Rx: 6 steps to a safer winter

Aging isn’t always easy. Same goes for caregiving. Layer in the added complexity of dementia or mental illness, and small obstacles can become much bigger. What’s more, both of these health issues are increasingly common among Canadian seniors.
By Home Care Assistance - November 25, 2019

Home Care Assistance is Changing the Way the World Ages. This is the latest installment of our “How To” series, where we lay out smart and easy-to-understand advice on navigating the aging process.

If you live in Montreal, winter’s already here. With the blanket of white stuff arriving even earlier than usual, we’re officially in this thing for the long haul. That’s left many of us scrambling to finish up winter-proofing our homes while digging out from beneath the first snow drifts of the year. 

If you’re caring for a senior citizen, driveways and sidewalks are a major concern. The sight of ice building up, and the buzz of early-morning snow ploughs, is enough to get any of us worrying about potential falls.

And we’re not wrong. Falls are the most common cause of injury among older Canadians. Every year, one in three seniors over the age of 65 is likely to fall at least once. They account for almost 85% of injury-related hospitalizations for seniors, and account for more than $2 billion a year in estimated costs for the Canadian health care system. 

The risk is so real, in fact, that many seniors actually suffer from “post-fall anxiety syndrome”, a serious complication in which someone can experience a downward spiral of reduced mobility, deconditioning, weakness and greater risk of – you guessed it – more falls.

The thing is, as dangerous as falls can be, they’re not the only risk you need to be on the look-out for this winter. As the weather takes a turn for the worse, it’s important to focus on a senior’s overall living conditions and spot possible trouble areas before they cause a problem. 

What should you be looking for as you help your loved ones adjust to winter’s arrival, and prepare to handle the months ahead as safely as possible?

  1. Put yourself in their shoes. Literally.

    If you’re worried about the mobility risk of icy walkways, slippery steps or a snowed-in driveway, explore those pain points from your loved one’s perspective. Literally walk the walk, steps and drive to see these areas through their eyes. If snow removal and sand or salt are your main concern, ensure you’re set up with the right support to make that happen. Remember: you can’t be everywhere at once; if you need to outsource these tasks find a reliable contractor or a local student to help. Going through the motions one step at a time can help you zero in on the less obvious trouble spots. Do they need a banister to navigate the front walkway? Is the backdoor accessible now that the snow is building up? Unearth and address issues now, before they trip anyone up. 
     
  2. Don’t just look down.

    Slippery surfaces are one thing, but don’t stop there. Do a full route around the exterior of the house to see what else you might be missing. Dryer vents covered in snow can be a fire hazard. Same goes for chimneys that haven’t been properly maintained. Windows and doors in need of caulking or weatherproofing could be an unwanted source of additional drafts. Patio furniture that was never put away could now be a dangerous obstacle. Wherever the senior citizen in your life is living, take a little time to assess risks from the outside, and fix anything that needs fixing before winter gets any worse.
     
  3.  Turn up the safety on heat sources.

    The elderly can suffer the cold more than a younger person would, bringing the need for additional heat sources. That could mean anything from an electric blanket to a space heater or even a scented candle. All of those represent fire risks if used in the wrong way, left to overheat, or forgotten. Know what they’re using to keep warm, and make them aware of the safety precautions they should be taking. A few Post-It notes reminding a loved one to double check these items regularly can make a huge difference. In the same breadth, keep an eye on the thermostat in the house to make sure it’s at the right setting for their comfort level. If you’re worried they aren’t able to navigate the technology themselves, consider a newer model where you can set the temperature to stay above a certain degree point, leaving them nothing to do but enjoy the warmth. 
     
  4. Don’t let the little things trip them up.

    Shorter days mean longer nights – and more darkness all around. Little things, like a pair of discarded boots, can become bigger hazards when light is poor and shadows have fallen. Doing a regular sweep of the house to ensure that the items your loved one needs regular access to are easy to reach and out of their foot path is important. Consider anti-slip mats or carpeting if you’re additionally worried about the slip factor that wet entryways or footwear can cause. 
     
  5. Make sure the cupboards don’t run bare.

    If a senior is used to regularly visiting the shops to pick up the odd ingredient or two, winter might make that harder, if not impossible, to maintain. Wintertime means thinking further ahead in terms of the groceries and necessities stocked and on-hand. That’s a good way to limit the number of unexpected or rushed trips to the store. It can also help ensure your loved one is maintaining nutritional and dietary needs even in the winter months. Someone who doesn’t want to alert a caregiver to an unexpectedly empty fridge might fall into the trap of not getting enough of what they need. And diet is everything in the cold winter months and beyond. 
     
  6. Have a “just in case” plan

    Anyone who weathered Québec’s now-famous ice storm is likely to feel an impending sense of doom when the lights flicker in the winter. That fear can be exacerbated for a senior citizen, especially if they’re on their own. Having, and discussing, an emergency plan just in case can ease a lot of that worry. Agree to what you’ll do if the power goes out. Have them pack a little bag of essentials on the off chance they need to stay somewhere else when temperatures dip. Warn them about the use of gas or kerosene indoors. Ensure their phone line will work even in a power failure and if it won’t, plan ahead for how you’ll get in touch. Discussing those details now can take some of the stress out of a possible emergency later. 

References

 

Statistics Canada

The second 50 years: Promoting health and preventing disability

Journal of Accessibility and Design For All

Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography journal

 

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