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Be Prepared: the Key to Senior Safety During the Winter and Holidays

Winter is an especially important time to keep an eye on seniors to make sure they are living as safely, healthfully and happily as possible.

Here are a few tips to help seniors during the season:

  • Check on elderly loved ones regularly, or if you live out of town, arrange for neighbors to check in and provide their number to call in emergencies.
  • Help your loved one arrange for someone to keep sidewalks shoveled and de-iced.
  • Make sure seniors have emergency supplies.
  • Arrange for transportation during severe weather to medical appointments or the grocery store.
  • If your loved one is physically or cognitively impaired, arrange for someone to stay with him during weather emergencies.

Holiday Safety Tips

Trees, lights and candles an important part of holiday traditions but pose a danger when not used safely.

Tree and decoration tips:

  • Buy an artificial tree that is labeled "fire resistant."
  • Choose a live tree that has green needles that do not break when bent between the fingers. The bottom of the tree should be sticky with resin. When tapped on the ground, the tree should lose only a few needles.
  • Place trees away from fireplaces, vents and radiators. If using a live tree, remember to keep the stand filled with water.
  • Use only noncombustible or flame-resistant decorations.

Lighting tips:

  • Use indoor and outdoor lights that have been tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. Use only newer lights that have thicker wiring and safety fuses to prevent wires from overheating.
  • Before using, check lights for cracked sockets, damaged wires or loose connections. Throw out broken sets.
  • Follow manufacturer's guidelines for stringing lights together. UL recommends using no more than three standard-size sets of lights together.
  • Make sure extension cords are rated for the intended use.
  • Check outdoor light labels to make sure they have been certified for outdoor use. Only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected receptacle or a portable GFCI.
  • Turn off lights before going to bed or leaving the house.

Candle tips:

  • Keep burning candles within sight.
  • Keep candles out of reach of small children and pets.
  • Extinguish candles before going to bed or leaving the room or house. Do not leave children, or adults with dementia, alone in a room with burning candles.
  • Keep lighted candles away from items that can catch fire, such as trees, decorations, curtains and furniture.
  • Always use non-flammable holders.
  • Use battery-powered candles whenever possible to avoid fire risk.

Fireplace tips:

  • Do not burn wrapping paper or plastic items in the fireplace. They can ignite suddenly and burn intensely.
  • Place a screen around the fireplace to prevent sparks from igniting nearby materials.

Keeping Walks Clear

Falls are always a concern for seniors. Winter poses a special risk, so put down road salt, cat litter or sand to keep sidewalks, steps and driveways as slip-free as possible.

Persons over age 65 -- especially those with a history of high blood pressure and heart disease -- should leave snow shoveling to others. The combination of strenuous work and blood vessels constricted by the cold air raises the risk of heart attack. Falls and severe muscle strains are also risks.

However, seniors who are able to shovel walks should:

  • Dress warmly and in layers, along with a hat and gloves, to retain body heat and prevent hypothermia. To avoid slipping, wear boots with non-skid soles.
  • Before starting, limber up with light warm-up exercises.
  • Push the snow in front of you, rather than try to lift it. If you must lift, pick up small amounts and lift with your legs, not your back.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you become dizzy or numb, stop immediately and go inside. Call 911 if you experience chest pain or other heart attack symptoms.

Protect Against Hypothermia

Seniors generally produce less body heat. That makes them especially susceptible to hypothermia, which if not detected early, can be extremely dangerous. Conditions such as stroke, Parkinson's disease and severe arthritis -- even some medications -- can limit the body's response to cold, leaving seniors even more vulnerable.

Hypothermia prevention tips:

  • Limit time outdoors and stay indoors on windy days. Go inside if you begin shivering.
  • Wear warm, layered clothing of natural fibers. To reduce heat loss, wear a hat, gloves, warm socks and boots. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs.
  • Keep the thermostat at a comfortable level, wear warm clothing and use enough blankets to stay warm at night.
  • To keep your body temperature up, eat hot, nourishing meals and drink warm beverages.

Seek medical attention immediately for anyone you believe is suffering from hypothermia. Keep the person dry and warm with blankets. Do not rub limbs to warm them. Encourage the person to drink hot, nonalcoholic, caffeine-free beverages.

Home Heating Safety

House fires are a special concern for seniors. They also need to beware of the dangers of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the bloodstream and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, convulsions and even death. The effects can happen even faster for someone with a respiratory or heart condition.

To prevent home heating problems:

  • Have all chimneys and flues inspected yearly and cleaned as needed.
  • Before winter, have the furnace inspected to make certain it is in good, safe operating condition.
  • Install smoke detectors on all floors and carbon monoxide detectors in areas where fuels are being burned. Replace batteries annually.
  • Open a window slightly when using a kerosene stove.
  • Place space heaters at least three feet from curtains, bedding, furniture and anything else that might burn.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy, replace as needed and know how to use it.

Winter Driving

Avoid driving during and after winter storms, but if you must drive:

  • Keep the gas tank full.
  • Let someone know your destination, route and expected time of arrival. Bring your cell phone.
  • Keep an emergency travel kit in the trunk, including a snow shovel, blankets, flashlight, water and first aid kit
  • If your car gets stuck, stay with it. Start the car and use the heater for about 10 minutes every hour. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow, so fumes do not back up in the car. Keep arms and legs moving to keep blood circulating and stay warm. Keep a window open to let in air.

For more information on winter safety and other emergency preparedness tips, visit the American Red Cross.

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