Ice and snow: should I stay or should I go?

After a mild festive season, winter is biting once more. So on icy mornings, it’s a choice for older people between going out and risking a fall, or staying indoors and inactive? Not so, says Doug Anthoney.

Woman walking through snow

Last month Dr Margaret Somerville of NHS Highland told Highland Councillors that older people should be discouraged from venturing out in wintry conditions because of the risk of falls. “With the weather like it is at the moment we need to think about the advice we give people when they go out,” she said. “We clearly want them to stay at home, if at all possible.”

While the problem of falls shouldn’t be downplayed – 1,500 people are admitted to hospital because of them each year in Highland alone, spending on average three weeks under care – there is a risk that this advice might compound other problems. Sedentary behaviour, the jargon for sitting around and not doing much, is proving a massive health risk, and long winter days spent indoors can make it a hard habit to break. Dawn Skelton, Professor in Ageing and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, says: “We may be doing harm by not encouraging regular mobility and movement.” And according to the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, exercise actually helps you to prevent falls by developing strength and balance.

While that there may be some circumstances in which going out-of-doors is overly risky, Age Scotland doesn’t agree that this should be the general recommendation during winter months. We think rather that Councils should ensure vulnerable older people don’t get cut off, for example because of un-gritted pavements, and are encouraging people to register online for our Winter Weather Watch to check that their Local Authority is taking appropriate action.

But individual choices also matter here. If the weather is so severe that going out is impossible, try to avoid sitting down for extended periods. Stand up, walk around, use the stairs – often these things are enough to raise your heartbeat a little and keep you healthy. According to Dawn Skelton, “It’s never too late – in 3 months and older person age 65 to 95 can rejuvenate 20 years of lost strength.” If you are in any doubt, ask your doctor’s advice on what is appropriate for you. Age Scotland’s Hot Tips Calendar offers advice for keeping active and you’ll find loads of good information in the Alliance’s PATH to Active Ageing report.

Doug Anthoney is Age Scotland’s Communications and Campaigns Officer.

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