02/23/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

Caregivers: Staying Out of Hot Water This Winter Is a 'SNAP'!

It's that time of year when those of us who care for elderly or chronically ill family members should take a moment to think about the special concerns that winter brings. We all know that cold weather brings with it risks of falls on snow and ice, health concerns such as flu and hypothermia and fire hazards related to space heating and faulty electricity. The following reminders can help your care recipients stay safe and get through winter with a "SNAP."

Stay warm. For older adults, hypothermia and frostbite are serious hazards of winter. Older adults lose body heat faster and tend to produce less body heat than younger adults. And older people tend to shiver less when they're cold, so it may be hard for them, and you, to know their body temperature is dropping, leading to a sudden drop called hypothermia.i It's important to help your family member stay warm by dressing with hats, scarves and loose layers of clothing or staying indoors with heat when it's very cold or windy. Also, because people with heart disease and other circulation problems are at higher risk for frostbiteii it's important to cover all parts of the body when going out, and if you see skin that's white, ashy or grayish-yellow or that feels hard, waxy or numb, call for medical help immediately.

Nix the flu. Winter is flu season for caregivers as well as their care recipients. Many family caregivers make sure their family members get flu shots, but then neglect to get their own. While flu shots can't guarantee you'll be healthy all season, seasonal flu vaccines protect against the influenza viruses that CDC research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. The CDC encourages people to get vaccinated throughout the flu season, which can begin as early as October and last as late as May.iii You can get a flu shot from your doctor, or even from many local pharmacy chains; from one caregiver for another, it's important that you take the time to protect yourself.

Arrive without a worry. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year one in every three adults age 65 and older falls. Falls can cause moderate to severe injuries, including hip fractures and head traumas, and can increase the risk of early death.iv Unfortunately, icy and snowy walkways can add to the risk of falling, so much so that many elderly people who live in snowy areas of the country develop a fear of going outside in the winter and end up severely curtailing their activities during these months.v But staying home and indoors can lead to isolation, depression and a loss of musculoskeletal strength, balance and overall mobility. In order to reduce fears and risks of injury:

  • Shovel steps and walks promptly and apply salt to reduce slippery conditions, or hire someone to this work for you.
  • Make sure that winter shoes have non-skid soles so you do not slip when you walk. For extra protection, you can purchase grippers that clip on over shoes to provide sure footing on slippery and snow-covered There are even sprays that you can apply to the bottom of your shoes to provide traction on slick surfaces.vii
  • If you use a cane or a walker, replace the rubber tips frequently. You might also buy an ice pick-like attachment that fits onto the end of the cane to help keep you from slipping when you walk with it.viii
  • And remember -- while shoveling might prevent falls, it can be a dangerous activity in itself. The American Geriatrics Society states that shoveling snow can put too much strain on your heart, especially if you have heart disease and it can be dangerous if you have problems with balance or osteoporosis. Ask your doctor if it's safe for you to shovel snow.ix

Prevent fire. Everyone needs to have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in their homes, and batteries should be replaced every year even if you don't hear "beeping." If you have a fireplace or a wood burning stove, make sure it's vented properly and that your chimney is inspected each year. Space heaters, which are relied upon by many elderly people who do not use all areas of their home, require special considerations. The National Fire Protection Association states that space heaters account for one-third of home heating fires and four out of five home heating fire deaths. The organization recommends that space heaters be placed at least three feet from any combustible materials, such as curtains or upholstery.x For extra protection, look for space heaters with automatic tip-over switches and overheat protection.

As a caregiver for your family member, you undoubtedly feel a great deal of responsibility for keeping your family member safe. It's important to keep yourself safe as well. Winter does present some special challenges, especially for the elderly, but these SNAP reminders can help you take winter by storm. And before you know it, the thaw will be upon us!

For more tips on winter safety from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, go to:

For more by Kathryn Haslanger, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.