Avoiding Winter Falls

Caregivers in New York City don’t often have to worry about an elderly parent’s ability to continue driving. But in exchange, we need to be concerned about older loved ones navigating crowded sidewalks and crossing busy streets—and about oblivious or hurried drivers.

Winter weather conditions can be especially dangerous for older pedestrians. Icy walkways and staircases and slushy street crossings can pose a number of risks, especially for seniors with balance or mobility issues. Decreased visibility from shorter days as well as darker (and harder-to-see) winter outerwear may make it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians of all ages, but older adults may have less agility to move out of the way quickly.

In addition, older adults are more physically fragile than younger adults. Falls are the leading cause of injury among the elderly, and they may lead to complications that can prevent seniors from living independently. Even if the impact is the same, an older adult will often sustain more serious injuries.

“Winter is a rough season for seniors,” says Joseph Gallagher, Physical Therapist and Director of Operation Support Services at VNSNY. “You can’t have someone walking in front of you with salt and a shovel, so you have to use common sense and try to prevent falls.” He offers these tips to increase winter safety for older pedestrians:

Wear Proper Footwear

First and foremost, Gallagher says, it’s important to wear the right pair of shoes or boots when you are heading outdoors: preferably ones with arch support and rubber soles, such as rain or snow boots, that help gain traction when navigating the winter terrain. In addition, increase visibility by wearing bright clothing (even a scarf or hat will help) and consider reflective material at night.

Buddy Up

You might be used to doing things on your own, but when it comes to facing the winter elements, it’s best to ask for some help. “If you are a little unsteady, ask someone to go with you when you go out, such as a neighbor or family member,” says Gallagher. “They can give you extra support, which could prevent a fall from happening.” Likewise, if you are using some sort of assistive device like a cane, bring it with you as it can help you maintain your balance.

Warm Up

Muscles and joints may become tight and stiff in cold weather, which makes them more prone to sprains and strains. Gallagher recommends warming up before going out to guard against injuries. “Do some gentle stretching and exercises to get your body warmed up and ready.”

Change Your Gait

When walking over snow and ice, bend your body slightly forward and decrease the length of your stride to give your body a wider base of support. “A lower position of gravity can keep you more stable,” says Gallagher. “You may look a little funny walking, but you’ll have a better chance of staying on your feet.”

Pay Attention

To stay safe on foot walking around the city in winter, follow these tips:

  • If possible, make eye contact with drivers making a turn. You’ll know that they see you.
  • Watch for transitions. In some neighborhoods, sidewalks change at intersections from concrete to stone, which can be much more slippery.
  • Know your limits. Most “don’t walk” signs now flash the seconds before the light changes, so be sure to give yourself enough time to get across without having to rush (especially in icy or slushy conditions).
  • Try to cross streets with other pedestrians. A motorist may not notice a single person crossing an intersection, but it’s harder to miss a group of people.

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