What Are the Dangers of Winter Senior Isolation?
The PACE Organization of Rhode Island discusses practical tips for keeping seniors safe when cold weather hits
by Joan Kwiatkowski

As the cold and dark of winter sets in around the country, seniors sometimes find this time the hardest to push through. The bleak winter season affects the mental state of all generations. The drastic weather change, and its subsequent effect on mental health, can present dangerous situations for loved ones that caregivers should be aware of.

Older adults have often faced the loss of many loved ones; they experience challenges living a full life due to health concerns; and they have watched family members move farther away from the traditional family home. Older adults become isolated, which can leave them distraught. We surveyed our interdisciplinary team at the PACE Organization of Rhode Island to determine the main issues leading to isolation of seniors during the winter, the dangers of isolation and what can be done to help.


What Leads to Senior Isolation?

The winter experience for isolated older adults is different than those who have ample support. Although it is obvious all winter, loneliness is heightened most during the holidays. While most people are supplied with what they require to survive, they go without the usual holiday cheer and they long for good food and quality time with family and friends.

The winter season is hard because some seniors are far away from family and have limited access to transportation, or in other cases, are estranged from family and have nowhere to go. Due to many seniors having a limited income, they often feel like they have nothing to offer to their friends and family, causing them to want to see loved ones less often. These limitations leave elders feeling insecure as well as isolated.

The winter can also present itself as ominous for some, both physically and emotionally. According to nurse practitioner Patricia Currier and primary care nurse Denise Miller, both of the PACE Organization of Rhode Island, during the holidays and the winter following, older adults often reflect on their losses over the years, as it is a reminder of those who are not around. VP of Clinical Services Betsy Canino adds that the cold weather and increased duration of darkness make this time even harder for program participants.

According to social worker Kristen Auger, the above factors could lead to participants feeling depressed—especially those who have behavioral health issues.

What Are the Dangers of Winter Senior Isolation?

Canino says a higher risk of suicidal ideations and poor decision-making come from a sense of despair. The participants could stop tending to their basic needs: They might not eat well, skip medications or isolate themselves.

What Can You Do?

If you are informing yourself, you are taking the first step. Winter can make an older adult who already feels lonely feel worse. Auger recommends reaching out to loved ones, neighbors and friends by calling or visiting. Canino recommends simply taking the time to talk to those around you who may need help.

On a clinical level, many adult day centers and nursing homes work all winter long to keep their clients emotionally and socially stimulated through activities. Currier noted that if you know of an older adult who is often alone, let them know that local churches will often have volunteers who will visit isolated elders in the community.

Any Time of Year

If you see an older adult displaying behaviors that hint that they are isolated or depressed, reach out to them.