Safety in and on the water for older Alaskans
June 1, 2023 | View PDF
Water safety is essential for all ages but particularly important for seniors. As people age, they often experience changes in their physical abilities and health that can make them more vulnerable to accidents and injuries in and around water, but self-awareness doesn't always keep up with those limitations. Understanding water safety is critical to prevent accidents and enjoy the many benefits of water activities.
The most important aspects of water safety for seniors are the risks associated with activities. Swimming is a great form of exercise, but you need to know your limits and avoid overexertion. Also, be cautious when swimming in natural bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans, because currents and tides can be unpredictable and dangerous. It is also crucial to have a plan in place for emergency situations, such as knowing how to call for help and being aware of nearby lifeguard stations or emergency services.
Going fishing? Know where those lures are headed and be careful of your balance – don't lean too far over the boat or the shore to get a look at your catch or you may become the next catch. It is always best to fish in a group of people for many reasons.
One of the most overlooked points of water safety is understanding the risks associated with medications and medical conditions. Many medications can affect a person's balance, coordination and judgment, which can increase the risk of accidents in and around water. Speak with your doctor or pharmacist about any medications you are taking and how they may impact your ability to participate in water activities, or how any ailments you may have might increase the risks.
Dress for safety
One of the most important precautions is wearing appropriate safety equipment, such as life jackets, when participating in water activities. Life jackets can help seniors stay afloat in the water, even if they become tired or disoriented. Also, wear proper footwear to avoid slipping and falling on wet surfaces. Wear clothes in layers so you can take some off or put some on as the weather dictates. Knowing the weather forecast can make a huge difference.
Hydration on the water
Another important precaution is staying hydrated. Seniors are more susceptible to dehydration than younger people, and dehydration can lead to dizziness, confusion and other symptoms that can increase the risk of accidents in and around water. It is crucial to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and prevent these symptoms.
Be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, as these conditions can be particularly dangerous when participating in water activities. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, dizziness and weakness, while symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature, confusion and loss of consciousness. It is important to take breaks and rest in shaded areas to prevent these conditions from occurring.
Safety with others
Finally, seniors should be cautious when participating in water activities with others. It is essential to communicate clearly and set boundaries to ensure that everyone is on the same page about the risks and expectations of the activity. Be cautious about participating in activities that require lifting or supporting other people, as this can be particularly challenging and increase the risk of accidents. When you are responsible for watching the grandchildren or other small humans, maintain awareness of their location at all times and remind them of what you expect from them about staying close and staying safe. Have your phone with you to call for help if you or anyone else in your party gets lost or injured.
Understanding the risks associated with various water activities, medications and medical conditions is critical, as is taking precautions to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. By staying hydrated, wearing appropriate clothing, and communicating clearly with others, seniors can enjoy water activities safely and confidently.
Christian M. Hartley is a 40-year Alaskan resident with over 25 years of public safety and public service experience. He is the City of Houston Fire Chief and also serves on many local and state workgroups, boards and commissions related to safety. He lives in Big Lake with his wife of 19 years and their three teenage sons.