The Cold Truth About Staying Warm and Safe in Winter

Active Living Profiles

Winter’s chill can take a toll on your health and well-being

No matter where you live in the U.S., most parts of the country experience cooler temperatures and challenging weather during the winter months. For some, that may just mean more rain, wind, and general unpleasantness. For others, winter requires serious consideration and preparation to stay safe.

Be sure you’re ready for whatever winter dishes out this year. These tips for safely navigating winter inside and outside your home may help.

Staying safe inside

Keep the heat up at home

  • Even if you’re on a budget, it’s important to keep your home warm in the winter, and 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit is the recommended temperature for older adults. Reducing drafts, keeping unused rooms closed, and adjusting vents so that warm air is concentrated in the parts of your home you use most can help keep your indoor temperature consistent and your heating costs down.
  • If you use a space heater in your home for additional warmth, keep it far away from anything that might catch on fire like curtains and rugs. If you heat your home with a fireplace, be sure to use a screen to prevent sparks from escaping and starting a fire.
  • Never use your gas stove to warm your home, as open flame is a major fire hazard. Sadly, older adults (65+) are three times more likely to be injured or to die in a house fire, so fire safety is critically important – especially in winter.
  • To avoid problems with carbon monoxide from a furnace, gas stove or fireplace, get a professional cleaning at least once per year and change furnace filters regularly. You should also have carbon monoxide and smoke detectors on every floor of your home.
  • If you heat your home with a wood burning fireplace, be sure to schedule an annual check and cleaning. Chimney cleaning logs can prevent a great deal of the creosote buildup, but if you’re having problems keeping a fire going, notice any strong odor other than the smell of burning wood, or have smoke backing up into the room, it’s time to call a professional for help.

Dress to shiver less

  • You’ll stay warmer inside if you dress the part – long sleeves and long pants, socks and slippers, and a sweatshirt or sweater should do the trick – and if you’re resting or reading in a chair, consider covering up with a small blanket or throw when you’re not actively moving around your home.
  • It may seem silly, but since we humans lose a tremendous amount of heat through our scalps, wearing a comfortable knit cap to bed is another good way to stay warm from head to toe.

Eat up!

  • Make sure you’re eating enough to maintain your normal weight. As we age, we lose body fat, making it more difficult to stay warm.

Mind your meds

  • Some health conditions like underactive thyroid and diabetes can make it difficult to maintain body temperature. And some medications like those prescribed for anxiety or depression, or to regulate blood pressure may also cause fluctuations in body temperature. Talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about the impact your prescriptions are having on your ability to stay warm.

Staying safe outside

Stay weather aware

  • Be ready for impending storms. If predicted bad weather might keep you housebound, be sure to stock up on food, medication, pet food, and anything else you might need to hunker down for a few days.
  • Stay in touch with relatives or friends before and during a prolonged storm. Be sure to let them know if your power goes out or if you’re having trouble with any of your appliances like your furnace or fireplace. A cold house or apartment can be downright dangerous in winter.
  • Hypothermia and frostbite are two very real concerns in winter, and especially for older adults who tend to lose body heat more quickly. If you do need to venture out, try to limit your time in the cold, and be sure to dress in layers. Layers of thin, loose fitting clothes are best for trapping warmth and allow for easier movement. If it’s raining or snowing, add a waterproof outer layer and watertight footwear to keep the layers below from getting damp and cold.
  • Don’t neglect the essentials for cold weather comfort, even for short trips. A hat, gloves or mittens, and a scarf are three “must-wear” basics for every outdoor excursion. A scarf is especially useful – you can wear it to cap your hat in place, over your face and mouth to keep cold air out, and around your neck to fill any gap at your coat collar.

Ice and snow woes

  • Ask your doctor whether you should shovel at all. Get help when you need it. If you absolutely must shovel snow from your step or walk, be sure to dress warmly, but also to be aware of your limits – especially if the snow is heavy and wet. Shoveling snow can tax your heart and your breathing, especially if you have any underlying conditions like heart disease or lung problems.
  • Ice is another winter peril, and hip fractures due to falls on ice are all too common in older adults. If you need to venture out in icy conditions, be sure to wear over-shoe cleats, or use trekking poles with a sharp tip to keep your balance. Non-skid soles are of little use on ice.
  • If you don’t need to go out, it’s best to stay in when ice conditions prevail. This is especially important after dark. If you must go outside after dark, keep a whistle and small flashlight in your coat pocket. If you fall and can’t get up, being able to alert someone to your presence could save your life.

Staying safe on the road

Winter Driving Tips

  • As we age, our responses are slower too, and it’s difficult to react quickly to the slips and slides that are just part of winter driving. Know your limits when it comes to driving in snow and on ice.
  • If you must drive in bad weather, make sure your vehicle is ready for anything.
    • Have fluid levels checked – especially windshield washer fluid and antifreeze.
    • Make sure your tires and wipers are up to snuff.
    • Top up your gas tank before leaving on a longer journey.
    • Always take your cell phone (fully charged).
    • Keep an emergency kit in your car. Stock your kit with the following essentials:
      • Blankets
      • Booster cables (and know how to use them!)
      • Shelf-stable, high-energy snacks like nuts or chocolate; bottled water
      • Warm socks or extra clothes
      • Shovel and sand
      • Flashlight and whistle
    • Know where you’re going, and plan the least challenging route to get there.

Winter shouldn’t inspire fear or dread, but it does demand our respect. Being prepared for cold weather is the best way to get through winter safely, with good health and good cheer.