Senior Viewpoint: Going Through Extremes, by Barb Dupras

One thing I love about the U.P. is the unpredictability of the weather.  As they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  I also love the contrasting seasons.  But this winter’s subzero temperatures have shown us what it feels like to be in such an extreme condition.  Our bodies deal with these temperatures in their own ways, but people of later years need to pay particular attention in order to stay safe and healthy in this type of weather. Extreme summer temperatures also can be an issue.  This article will describe ways to help the elderly with challenging winter and summer temperatures .

Changing weather affects conditions that are common in seniors such as arthritis.  Do you ever wonder why joints seem to hurt more at certain times, especially when there is a change in the weather?  Dr. Mark Gourley of the National Institute of Health explains that the pressure in the joints changes as the weather changes.  Think of the tissues surrounding the joints as balloons.  When the air pressure decreases, the balloon expands a little, putting pressure on the joints which can create discomfort.  Some say they can predict changing weather by pain in their joints and they are right!  Dr. Gourley suggests the following to ease the discomfort when the temperature goes down:

  • Keep warm by bundling yourself in several layers from head to toe.
  • Be sure your home is kept warm and also preheat your car before entering it.
  • Warm your clothing by putting it in the dryer before dressing.
  • Sleeping with an electric blanket can be helpful.
  • Drinking hot liquids also keeps the body warm.
  • Before going out in the cold, exercise the affected joints.
  • Maintaining a regular movement program is helpful for loosening stiff joints while helping to prevent winter weight gain and the stress this can add to painful joints.

Respiratory problems such as rheumatoid lung disease and asthma can be affected by breathing extremely cold air.  If you have any condition that affects your lung capacity, wearing a face mask and/or covering your mouth to help warm the air you breathe may help you cope with frigid temperatures.

Often seniors fear slipping and falling on ice.  For those with osteoporosis, this is of even greater concern because more porous bones can fracture easily.  It’s probably best to stay indoors when conditions are icy.  If you need to venture out, prepare yourself.  Putting ice grippers on the bottom of boots, shoes and canes is a wonderful way to help prevent falls.  Call your local medical supply store to inquire about these.

Over time, burrowing inside to escape low temperatures can negatively impact one’s mood. Depression can affect anyone, but seniors are especially at risk in winter as they’re less active and more confined to their homes.  The lack of sunlight in our area during winter can also be a factor. If you or your loved one typically feel low in the winter, you may want to try using a full spectrum light for a period of time daily to improve mood and energy level.  I use the Verilux Happy Light, which can be found online.

Planning stimulating indoor activities before winter hits can also assist. Really delve into your interest.  Stained glass?  Painting?  See what online and community classes are available to you.

Keeping in touch with loved ones is also uplifting.  Try Skyping, a free video conference call over the computer with your loved ones.  Look into different ways to keep in touch.

Another way to beat the blues is to exercise.  Whatever your activity level, even if you’re in a wheelchair, find a program that suits your needs and keeps your body moving.

So plan for a better winter – make an intention!!   Hindsight is always good, but foresight is even better!

Now for the other side of the weather spectrum – heat!  Seniors frequently have a medical condition or are on a medication that can affect the body’s cooling system and ability to perspire. Certain psychotropic medications can also affect a person’s ability to feel extreme heat.  It’s important to check on senior loved ones frequently during this time. Here are some guidelines that may be helpful:

  1. Make sure the senior rides out the heat in an air-conditioned environment – if not at home, then at the senior center, neighbors home, library, etc.
  2. Encourage your senior loved one to drink plenty of water.
  3. Check on your loved one twice a day.  If you are at a long distance, you can Skype to know he or she is safe.  Seeing your loved one sometimes is better, as one can hide distress in the voice.
  4. Have a back-up plan and transportation arranged in case the power goes out.
  5. Check on those seniors in your neighborhood who may not have family or anyone close to do so.

To keep yourself or your loved one cool during extreme heat, take cool baths/showers, avoid heavy meals and strenuous activity, keep shades down and blinds closed but windows slightly open, keep electric lights off or turned down, and wear loose, lightweight clothing.  Muscle cramping can be the first sign of a heat-related illness.   Pay attention; if you suspect a senior could be too hot – take action!

You may want to keep this article handy as an informative reminder. Knowing what to do to keep yourself or your loved one safe in extreme weather is invaluable for the coming years!

Barbara Dupras is a retired senior center social worker who also is an energy practitioner and enjoys her home on the Chocolay River. She can be reached at duprasbarb@yahoo.com.

 Sources: http://www.seniorcarehgomes.com/health-and-wellness/winter-health-problems.html; www.cdc.gov/extremeheat/warning.

This article was reprinted with permission from the Spring 2014 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Aging, Barb Dupras, elder care, Extreme Weather Protection, Extreme Weather Tips

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