Be Prepared: The Key To Senior Safety During The Winter And Holidays

Winter—for many, a season of cold winds, ice, snow and isolation—is an especially important time for family, friends, neighbors and caregivers to keep a caring eye on seniors to make sure they are safe, doing well and have what they need.

Here are a few tips to help seniors get through the season:

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

Holiday Safety Tips for Seniors

Trees, lights and candles play key roles in holiday traditions, but pose a danger when not used with care. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC – reports that each year nearly 12,800 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to holiday decorating, including falls and electrical shocks.

An average of 240 fires involving dried-out Christmas trees result in 16 deaths and $13 million in property damage, the National Fire Protection Association reports. The CPSC says that an average of 13,000 candle-related fires occur annually, resulting in 170 deaths and $390 million in property damage.

Tree and decoration tips:

  • Buy artificial trees that are 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 non-combustible or flame-resistant decorations.

Lighting tips:

  • Use only lights—indoors or out—that have been tested for safety by a nationally-recognized testing laboratory, such as UL or ETL/ITSNA. Use only newer lights that have thicker wiring and safety fuses to prevent wires from overheating.
  • Before using, check lights for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Throw out damaged sets.
  • Follow manufacturer’s guidelines for stringing light sets together. UL recommends using no more than three standard-size sets of lights together.
  • Make sure extension cords are rated for the intended use. Discard cords that are frayed.
  • 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.
  • 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, other evergreens, decorations, curtains and furniture.
  • Always use non-flammable holders and keep away from children and pets.
  • 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; about one-third of seniors fall each year in the Canadian winter poses a special risk, so put down road salt, kitty 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, such as neighbors, youth wanting to earn a little money, volunteers from churches and organizations or professional services. 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.

For seniors who do shovel walks, however:

  • 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 lifting. 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, a drop in body temperature below 96 degrees. If not detected early, it can be extremely dangerous. Conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis, and some medications, can limit the body’s response to cold, leaving seniors even more vulnerable.

Signs include: uncontrollable shivering, numbness, confusion, drowsiness, loss of coordination, stiff muscles, slurred speech, slow and shallow breathing, slow and irregular heartbeat and weak pulse.

Hypothermia Prevention

  • Limit time outdoors, and stay in 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.
  • Indoors, 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

People age 65 and older are three times more likely than younger people to die or be injured in a house fire.

Seniors also need to beware of the dangers of carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that can be given off by heating devices fueled by gas, oil, kerosene or wood. Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the bloodstream and can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, convulsions and death within two hours. The effects can happen even faster for someone with a respiratory or heart condition.

  • 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

When the Power Goes Off

Make sure to check in on seniors during a winter power outage and help them get to an emergency shelter if necessary, particularly in the event of a prolonged outage.

Seniors should have plenty of warm blankets, candles and working flashlights and batteries on hand, along with an emergency supply of canned goods and other food.

To preserve food, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as long as possible. An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours. A full, unopened freezer will keep foods for about 48; half full, about 24 hours.

Winter Driving

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

  • Keep the gas tank full
  • Let someone know your destination, route and expected time of arrival, and bring your cell phone
  • Keep an emergency travel kit in the trunk, including a snow shovel, blankets, flashlight, water, 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 what to do during power outages and other emergencies, visit the Canadian Red Cross at

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