In many parts of the country, winter’s chill is forcefully gripping the air. The next few months will urge the majority of us inside to keep warm and avoid the discomforts of colder weather. For seniors, the prospect of facing a snowy, icy, or otherwise freezing climate can be a daunting one. But these conditions are even more hazardous for those living with dementia, as the bite of winter often presents a number of heightened risks to their physical and mental health.
As we brace for the thick of winter, the following are some important insights about the realities facing seniors living with dementia, as well as helpful information on how to maximize physical and mental well-being during this difficult time of year.
Winter Hazards Impacting Seniors with Dementia
Before we discuss the best ways to support seniors living with dementia during the coldest season, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of the actual threats facing this population. It’s certainly true that winter can be a dangerous and difficult time for any senior, but dementia adds another layer of risk and vulnerability to the equation.
Consider some of the following ways seniors with dementia are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to staying safe and healthy throughout winter:
Depending on the senior’s stage of dementia progression, they may not have the wherewithal to dress appropriately for the dipping temperatures and/or slippery conditions. Even when staying indoors, there is a danger of failing to maintain sufficient body heat. If they don’t remember to wear warm clothing and extra layers when necessary, it could put their health at risk.
A common side effect associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia is a deteriorating sense of perception. This can be an especially dangerous reality for seniors who venture outdoors. Even a simple stroll to the car could be a perilous effort if one’s sense of perception makes it challenging to see and navigate icy walkways. This factor might also give a false sense of security in the snow, and one might incorrectly assume they are standing on solid ground. All of these hazards present major risks for potentially serious slips and falls.
Due to its inherent nature, winter is also a time when some seniors suffer from increased levels of anxiety and depression. There’s a reason why the “winter blues” got their name. And mental health is a much more pronounced concern for individuals who live with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Many of these seniors already experience greater emotional distress as a result of the confusion, frustration, and fear that often accompany these issues. With less daylight and more time spent indoors and/or alone, the winter can become a particularly troubling time for seniors living with dementia.
Memory loss and confusion are staples of dementia, which is why seniors living with this condition sometimes go missing—a harrowing experience for everyone involved. If this happens in the thick of winter, when conditions are extra cold and dangerous, the situation is even more frightening. An individual could be just a short distance from home and forget where they live or where they were going. Every extra minute spent in the cold and hazardous outdoors is an increased risk to their health, and it’s a reality that can happen without warning.
Tips for Minimizing the Dangers
Given the many risks posed to seniors living with dementia this time of year, it’s important to take preventive measures that help ensure the safety of your loved one. Here are some vital tips for making the wintry months less hazardous for seniors in this situation.
Ensure they are equipped with warm clothing, shoes, and layers, including a heavy coat and outdoor accessories like a hat, scarf, and gloves. Check-in on them to ensure their skin is not cold to the touch, and monitor body temperature to ensure it doesn’t drop below 95 degrees. If it does, seek immediate medical attention.
For optimal ground traction, make sure they are outfitted with solid shoes featuring non-skid soles. Assist them with walking outdoors (or ensure someone else is there to do so), and serve as their extra set of eyes to identify slippery spots and unstable surfaces. Position a doormat to prevent moisture from accumulating on hardwood floors inside, and encourage them to transition to another set of stable shoes upon reentering the home.
To help address the dangers of getting lost outdoors in the cold, it may be necessary to ensure your loved one is accompanied when they leave home, to equip them with an easy form of emergency communication (mobile phone, alert system, etc.), and even outfit them with clothing that is bright and reflective so they are more easily seen. If this issue becomes a more serious concern, it may be time to consider an elevated component of care.
Seeking Out Specialized Support
There could come a time when ensuring the safety of your loved one living with dementia is too great a challenge to maintain their existing environment. The hazards of winter can be a defining element in realizing the severity of a senior’s progression with dementia. Often, these individuals have specialized needs that can’t necessarily be met when living at home, even if they have the benefit of a loved one’s time and care.
So as you navigate these difficulties at such a wearisome time of year for so many, consider whether a memory care community might be a better alternative for your loved one. These communities are specifically designed to cater to the unique needs of seniors battling dementia and can be an ideal opportunity for supporting your loved one with the extra level of care they require.
In 1998, I drove past an assisted living community construction site, learned that it was part of United Methodist Homes and realized the next stop on my professional journey was to work for a mission driven organization. Soon after, I joined the team as Executive Director of our Middlewoods of Farmington community and later served as Regional Manager for the Middlewoods properties before accepting my current role as Vice President of Marketing, Promotions, and Assisted Living Operations. I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, reading, walking, and love working alongside our staff, residents, and families to build strong communities that reflect the mission, vision, and values of United Methodist Homes.
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