Staying Well In Winter

Senior man drinking coffee in the kitchen, looking at window on winter day.

Winter is officially here, bringing cold weather and shorter days. We know that older people are more vulnerable during these months but there are simple things that we can do to improve health and wellbeing. Read on for our five tips on helping the elderly to stay well this winter. 

 1. Stay active at home

“If you don’t want to leave the house, then you can still keep up your activity levels” is the message Nancy Farmer, ElWell physiotherapist wants to spread this winter. 

As we age, we lose muscle strength (this happens from the age of 40, so we can all benefit from improving it, but this is especially true for the elderly). Losing muscle strength impacts our balance meaning you’re more likely to fall. So then, if an older person is less active during winter, they can lose even more muscle strength, become weaker and be more hesitant to leave the house during the colder months in case of a fall. 

 The over 65s have the most to benefit from exercise, and new guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer report that any amount is good, they just want you to get moving. There are a number of ways you can achieve this at home during the colder months.

Home work-out online, app or DVD: If you need motivation to help you exercise (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?!), then this is for you. Work-outs of varying lengths, to suit any ability can be found online and don’t require equipment. It’s worth watching it through before you start exercising to familiarise yourself with the moves and to check your fitness level is in line with the exercises. We like The Body Coach and Davina McCall’s Own Your Goals. Talking of Davina, she also has DVDs which suit different fitness levels. But there are so many out there, so have a search online (YouTube can be a good place to start) and find one you are comfortable with.

Personalised exercise plan: A physiotherapist can visit you at home and set a bespoke plan for you, taking your ability and location into account. They can recommend any equipment that may help, run through the exercises with you to ensure you’re doing them correctly and help plan an exercise diary so you know how often you should be doing this. 

If you feel up to leaving the house, then do! Wrap up warm, check it’s not too icy and go with someone for support if that will help you feel more confident. Go for a long walk, do your shopping – whatever you feel comfortable with. Any amount of exercise is good, just keep moving!

2. Check your walking aids

Walking sticks, crutches and frames can provide fantastic mobility support when it’s icy out, and give peace of mind. It is important though to make sure the aid is measured correctly – not only does this give stability, but it will stop you hunching over.

We’ve written an in-depth article on the best walking aids for the elderly. Hope you find it useful!

If you or your parent has a walking stick, you can check it’s the right height easily by following these steps:
– At home, stand upright, wearing the shoes you will go outside in. Relax your arms.
– Turn the stick around so that the handle is on the bottom, and rest it on the ground by your feet. The body and top of the stick should be coming up the side of you.
– You’re looking for the stick to meet the bottom of your wrist bone. It might need some adjusting (up/down) to do so. If you have a metal stick, push in the two buttons on the side and slide it up or down. A wooden stick can always be cut down to the right length.

 If you have a walker or a frame, make sure you check the height with the supplier before leaving. And they should be able to help with any adjustments too.

Folding walking sticks, such as this one from Boots, can be another solution to give you some added stability when you need it during winter. Made from strong lightweight aluminium, they fold away when you don’t need them – but they can’t be adjusted to the right height so check before you buy. 

Maintain your walking aid

Whether you use your aid daily, or just for ad-hoc support, it’s important to keep it maintained. The ferrule (the rubber stopper on the end) can get worn down which won’t give you the security and stability you want – especially when it’s icy out. If your ferrules look worn out, they’re easy to remove and replace – you can find cost-effective, reliable options at Boots

If you keep your walker outside by the door, give it a once-over before using. Wipe away any frost on the handle bars, and check for any cold-related cracks. 

Just like with a car, the brakes on a walker or frame can get worn out too. Give them a check before going outside, and if they are not effective enough, get in touch with the company who supplied it. If the brakes are worn through and you don’t feel comfortable going outside without one, then call on a friend or family member to help you. The main thing is that you feel safe. 

3. Think about your shoes

Beat the frost and choose outdoor shoes that offer good grip and ankle support. If you’re lucky enough to have an independent shop near you, we find that they have a wealth of knowledge. There’s also a variety of wider shoes at Clarks, Hotter, Ecco and Geox. Shop around and choose a pair that you find comfortable and fit well. 

Slippers are a great idea for staying warm inside, but make sure you choose ones with backs for added support – backless slippers can impact your balance and cause a large number of falls in the elderly at home.

4. Make sure you’re getting Vitamin D

We all know that calcium is crucial for alleviating osteoporosis but there’s another vitamin that is needed too – vitamin D. Naturally-occurring in the body, it helps your intestines absorb calcium from the food we eat and is needed for bone health and density. As we get older, falls become more prevalent, so it’s important to keep your bones as healthy as possible.

We all make vitamin D naturally in our bodies from direct exposure to sunlight (UVB rays). In the UK everyone is at a risk of making less vitamin D during winter as the sunlight we get doesn’t contain enough UVB rays. Sitting by a window and feeling warm from the sun won’t give you vitamin D as the UVB rays can’t penetrate the glass. 

There are some other ways you can increase your vitamin D intake.

Vitamin D supplement

Public Health England recommends anyone over one year old has 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily. As this can be hard to get during winter, and from diet alone, a supplement is a good alternative to help with bone health. If you’re reading this for your elderly parent, you could also take the advice for yourself – you’re never too early to start building up bone strength.

Vitamin D and your diet

While you can’t rely on diet alone, it would be an idea to incorporate food that has vitamin D in it. Salmon is high in vitamin D but if possible choose wild over farmed as it contains 75% more vitamin D. Other fatty fish options are canned tuna, herring and sardines. And if you don’t like fish, you could also take cod liver oil daily.

Eggs yolks are a good source of vitamin D. If you choose eggs from chickens that have been reared outside then they will be a higher source of vitamin D, or you could even buy eggs that have been fortified. 

Did you know that mushrooms are the only naturally-producing plant based source of vitamin D? However, lots of mushrooms now are grown in the dark, so if possible choose wild mushrooms or those that have been treated by a UV light. 

You can also find fortified foods – good news if you’re vegetarian or don’t eat much fish, given most vitamin D producing foods are from animals. Orange juice, milk (soy and cow) and cereals are some of the options out there.

5. Stay social

Older people may go out less during winter, but staying social and entertained has a huge benefit to mental wellbeing. 

Make plans with friends and family – this will give you something to look forward to, and an excuse to leave the house. If you need transport help, look for volunteer driving schemes in your area. They usually need booking a few days in advance, and can help you get out and about.

Having options – there are lots of activities out there, but sometimes we just need to know where to look. If you’re in Oxfordshire, check out ElWell’s list of accessible activities and days out here.

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