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Preventing winter deaths in the elderly

Posted on 03/12/2015

As we enter winter, it’s time to think about how the change in climate, seasonal illnesses and increased isolation can affect the elderly population in our communities, as well as our family members.

Recent reports show that last winter had the highest number of deaths since 1999, with an excess 43,900 deaths over the season (December to March), according to data from the Office for National Statistics. The majority of these deaths occurred in those over the age of 75, the age group most vulnerable to the effects of the season. 

There are a number of reasons that have been suggested as reasons for this increase. This included the flu virus and the vaccine for that year being less successful than others at preventing its spread – leading to outbreaks in residential care environments. The cold weather was also a factor, though it was a milder winter than many.

A third of the total cases were due to respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and pneumonia. A quarter was caused by circulatory diseases, and over 9,000 can be attributed to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

As we enter the cold winter months for this year, there are measures that you can take to ensure that elderly family members or neighbours are safe, and you can help to reduce their risk. Here are some ways that you can help to prevent excess winter deaths this year:

1. Be aware of temperature

When you visit an elderly relative or neighbour, be sure to check the temperature of their home. A warm home can help to prevent illness, and there are practical measures that you can help them take. For example, having curtains closed can prevent draughts, as can closing doors between rooms. Look at whether simple draught excluders or door curtains can be placed on external doors easily to help retain the heat. You could also look at adding low-cost electric heaters into main rooms to boost the temperature without adding much to bills.

2. Know what help is available

There are cold home schemes, so if the above measures don’t do enough and it’s not feasible economically to boost the heating system, then it is worth researching these. Also look at local community groups who have support systems to help the elderly in the winter months – many offer hot meal services, company or home checks.

3. Prevent the spread of illnesses

Encourage elderly neighbours and family members to get the flu jab. While it’s not always effective in everyone, it can significantly reduce the chance of a vulnerable person getting ill. It’s free for those over the age of 65. You should also maintain good hygiene habits yourself when visiting, making sure to wash your hands thoroughly so as not to spread germs, and restrict visits if you or someone in your household is ill.

4. Eat well and drink water

Staying nutritionally healthy can help the body to fight off winter illnesses. You could take prepared meals around when you visit, packed with goodness, which can be easily heated. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables, and make sure that they are drinking enough water to stay hydrated. Warm drinks can help to warm the body too, so offer to pop the kettle on.

5. Help to stay active

Being active helps the body to cope with cold weather and boost the immune system. If you can, take your neighbour or family member out for a short walk or encourage them to move around the home as much as possible.

6. Dress for the conditions

Make sure that the person you are visiting is dressed well for the weather. Keep layers to hand in the main rooms of the house, including warm jumpers and thin, fleecy layers that can be taken on and off easily as needed. Socks and slippers prevent heat escaping, as does a hat and coat when outdoors. Make sure that they have shoes with a good grip for walking outside to prevent falls. 

7. Get help quickly if illness hits

Fast treatment is very important. If an elderly person is unwell, get them to their GP immediately. The sooner that treatment can start, the more likely they are to be able to cope with it. 

8. Be good company

Winter can see some elderly people more isolated than usual, especially in bad weather when they might be unable to get out and about. Sometimes, the best thing that you can do is be there for a chat and company, or offer to take them out to get to community groups or do the shopping. 

Good sources of further information:

Keep Warm, Keep Well leaflet from the government

Cold Weather Action Plan for winter

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