Physician Focus: Winter Is Coming


Ten Tips for Making It Through a Massachusetts Winter

By Susan Moynihan, MD, and Shreekant Vasudhev, MD

With falling temperatures signifying the inevitable change of the season, many New Englanders have begun preparing for another unpredictable winter. In our retirement years, winter can be a difficult and dangerous few months. If you’re retired, or if you have senior family, friends, and neighbors —that means all of us — we can work together to help keep everyone healthier and safer. Many of the following tips are useful for everyone, regardless of our age and health:

  1. Check in on each other. Taking care of one another starts with checking regularly on elderly neighbors during the winter months, especially before, during, and after storms in which a power outage has occurred.
  2. Get vaccinated. Winter can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions. Those conditions, including heart failure, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma, influenza, and even the common cold, can lead to serious health consequences. One of the most important things you can do to protect your health in the winter is to get a flu vaccination. You may also want to talk with your physician about a pneumonia vaccination.
  3. Always carry your cell phone. The outdoor elements can be a significant source of danger. Take precautions with every outdoor activity, from shoveling snow to simply walking to the mailbox. Call for help if needed. You can get additional protection from a commercial medical-alert system, which you can wear and activate to signal for help in an emergency.
  4. Shovel slowly, or ask for help with shoveling. A sudden increase in physical activity — especially in the cold — can aggravate conditions like heart failure, asthma, and COPD. If you’re sick or have physical limitations, don’t hesitate to ask a friend or neighbor for help with shoveling snow.
  5. If you fall, call for help immediately. Walking on snow or ice comes with the risk of a slip-and-fall accident. Falls can be potentially life-threatening, especially if you have osteoporosis. Getting help quickly greatly increases the chances of you making a satisfactory recovery from any injuries.
  6. Wear boot grips or cleats. A couple of precautions can reduce your risk of slipping and falling. Over-the-sole slip-on cleats can improve traction on slippery surfaces. Fit them onto your snow boots at the start of the season and keep your boots by a chair near the door.
  7. Stay physically active. A regular fitness routine can help, too. Regular, moderate physical activity can help maintain your muscle strength, which will subsequently improve balance and your ability to catch yourself if your start to slip.
  8. Check out home heating resources. Be thoughtful too about your safety at home. If your home isn’t adequately heated, there’s a risk of hypothermia. Winter heating can be costly; if you’re concerned, it is critically important that you know about helpful resources. Check with your local Council on Aging or senior center for information on free or reduced heating fuel for seniors.
  9. Eat well. Proper nutrition through the winter is also important. It may be harder to get to the store, especially if you live alone, and living on canned foods isn’t a great fix (for example, they’re high in sodium). Most communities or regions have programs that can help seniors tap into nutrition-based services like meal delivery and transportation to local grocery stores. Again, check with your local Council on Aging or senior center.
  10. Watch our show. For more on winter safety for the elderly, go online to watch Physician Focus, the public access TV show produced by the Massachusetts Medical Society and HCAM-TV. Visit massmedical.org and go to “News and Publications” to watch Winter is Coming, the current episode, featuring more winter survival strategies.

Dr. Susan Moynihan practices with North Shore Physicians Group. Dr. Shreekant Vasudhev is a physician at Baystate Medical Center.


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