By Dr Paul McElwaine, Tallaght University Hospital and HSE Community Services for Older Persons
The winter season is nearly past, but it is never too late to be winter ready. The cold weather brings a reminder that we can be vulnerable to the elements. There are members of our community who are more vulnerable than others, particularly older persons with health problems. Take a moment to consider people in your area who may struggle at this time of year. Lean into the community spirit that served us so well during the peaks of the pandemic, by saying hello and asking them if they need anything.
The prevailing sense of isolation which came like a fog over people living on their own during the pandemic has left a residual effect. The cold and unforgiving weather heightens this further. A study by the TILDA group from Trinity College Dublin in 2021 showed that following the lockdown period -almost 1 in 3 people aged over 60 felt lonely with a doubling of people with symptoms of depression. Reversing that negative effect requires many things, but the primary response starts with kindness. It should not be understated that social interaction has a profound effect on how we feel and think, particularly if it is a positive experience.
If you are worried about how you yourself will manage, or know of someone who needs support, then there are things you can do to be winter/cold weather ready. Firstly - ensure you have received the annual vaccines recommended, as this protects you and others from easy-to-spread viruses. Furthermore there is evidence that receiving the flu vaccine each year may benefit your heart and brain health. Being winter ready also means being physically able to tolerate the harsher conditions. Exercise is vital to this effort. The aim is to be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day five days per week. Muscle strengthening exercises such as hand held weight exercises or yoga at least a couple of times a week will help reduce risk of falls. Even daily chores such as cooking help break up periods of sitting. If you have significant mobility issues remember any activity you can manage is better than none at all.
Ensuring that you eat healthily, keep hydrated and keep warm are basic requirements but in tough financial times these essentials become a major source of concern. With this cold snap upon us, make sure there is enough food and water in the home. Aim to have at least one hot meal a day and hot drinks throughout the day. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables whenever possible. Keep stocked up on the basics. Your local store may offer delivery. If you collect you medications weekly, think about getting an extra week or two of supply just in case your access to the pharmacy is affected by the bad weather.
Heating and fuel prices make the decision around staying warm far more difficult than it should be, be sure to access fuel allowances or ask someone to help you access these allowances if you are not sure how. Wear several layers of light clothes instead of one thick layer and check if you have warm bedding and night wear. You could also keep a flask with a warm drink beside your bed. Some of these suggestions may seem quite obvious but sometimes it is hard to coordinate things so having a plan is essential, particularly if the weather changes abruptly.
In some instances, people need help that family or neighbours can’t provide, or they have no one who can support them. Our work in the Integrated Care Team for older persons is to assess and assist people who have difficulties accessing health and social care through traditional means. Through a joint venture with Tallaght University Hospital and HSE Community Services for Older Persons, building on the principles of Sláintecare, our team comprises specialist doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and medical social workers. The team also works closely with local services such as An Garda Síochána, National Ambulance Service and the local County Council. There are also fantastic voluntary organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society, Alone, Age Action, St. Vincent de Paul, and Sage Advocacy who are providing support and services to particularly vulnerable older people. All of this work often goes unnoticed as the care provided is done through humility and with a central purpose of respect and dignity for the person in need.
Dr Paul McElwaine is the Consultant Physician in Geriatric Medicine for Integrated Care Older Persons Services Hse Dublin South Kildare West Wicklow Community Healthcare /Tallaght University Hospital. Dr McElwaine also serves as a Clinical Senior Lecturer, Centre for Medical Gerontology, Trinity College Dublin.