A Michigan winter can feel long, dark and cold—regardless of your age.
Add in the challenges of aging and it can become downright brutal.
So how can we look out for our older neighbors and loved ones, especially in the winter months?
Older people face special circumstances during the winter months, particularly if they live in their own home. They face higher risk of falls and fractures, for example, which can be traumatic.
But there are unique ways we all can help, said Iris Boettcher, MD, a Spectrum Health physician specializing in geriatric medicine.
Here are Dr. Boettcher’s tips for those who want to help:
Talk about their needs
Helping others can be a tricky balance between being helpful and being intrusive.
On the one hand, a senior citizen might have lived independently for a long time and not be accustomed to asking for help. On the other hand, there might be plenty of ways they would welcome a hand, especially during a winter storm.
“The best thing is to inquire or ask first,” she said. “It’s important to let them have a voice in what they need.”
That said, don’t necessarily wait for them to ask for help. It might be a good idea to respectfully reach out and proactively offer aid, rather than waiting for them to make the first move.
If you’re headed to the grocery store, offer to pick something up for them.
It’s also important to respect people’s wishes about exposure during flu season and the pandemic. For instance, while someone may not be comfortable accepting an invitation to go out for lunch or a cup of coffee, they may welcome a contactless delivery of a hot drink, treat or meal.
Help clear ice and snow
Winter storms can create treacherous walking and driving conditions for everyone. It only takes one patch of ice to cause someone to slip and fall, possibly resulting in a severe fracture.
Shoveling snow can also be too strenuous for many seniors, particularly those with cardiac conditions. Offer to clear their sidewalk and driveway. Pay special attention to salting or sanding slippery spots.
You could also save them a trip outside by offering to run an errand for them, bring in the mail or walk their pet until the snow and ice clears.
Share contact information
Before the weather turns nasty, make sure you gather your elderly neighbor’s contact information, as well as a phone number for a family member if they’re willing to share it.
Make sure they have yours as well. You never know when this information will come in handy, even in warmer months.
Check in on them
A quick phone call when the forecast looks dicey might prevent your neighbor from needing to go out in dangerous weather. It helps assure you they have what’s needed to wait out the storm, and it gives them assurance they can call anytime.
Phone calls or a quick knock on the door to say hello can also help fight against isolation. Even a small note or token left in their mailbox can help fight off loneliness.
“A lot of them don’t do FaceTime, but if they do, arrange a virtual visit,” Dr. Boettcher said. “Or just make a phone call.”
Offer small acts of kindness
Brainstorm ideas with family, or with fellow neighbors, to identify acts of kindness that might boost spirits.
If you’re making dinner, package a few portions to deliver to an elderly neighbor. Your children can make them a cheery card. You can drop off a floral bouquet to brighten their home on a grey day. If they are open to visitors, offer to play a game of cards with them.
Everyone loves a thoughtful pick-me-up during a long winter—or any time of the year.
Help them find help
Stay on the lookout for signs that someone needs more help than you can offer, Dr. Boettcher said.
Perhaps someone’s dementia causes them to be more confused or uncertain about the steps involved in a task, or perhaps you’ve noticed they don’t have proper footwear or outerwear.
“We can try to help them, but with that comes being aware that there might be a bigger problem,” Dr. Boettcher said.
The first rule, as always, is to show respect. This can be tricky because the person may not be aware they need help, and oftentimes they don’t perceive anything is wrong, she said.
Reaching out to a family member or a community resource can make a difference.
It’s not hard to look out for those in older generations—and it does all of us good to make connections all year round.