Skin is considered to be the largest organ in the human body and has many functions that keep us safe. It provides us with sensory information about our environment, notifies us of injuries sustained, protects us from infections and retains moisture necessary for adequate bodily function.
Yet as we grow older, skin's ability to perform these vital functions begins to diminish. Beneath the topmost epidermal layer, the insulating fat and the blood vessels that provide the skin with oxygen eventually disappear. This causes the skin to wrinkle, thin and weaken.
The winter months usually bring with them drier air conditions that result in drier skin for everyone, but this effect can be particularly troublesome for seniors. The lack of humidity means sensitive skin is at an even greater risk for dryness that can cause persistent itching, discomfort and even breakage that can lead to serious health complications.
Discomfort from itching can be damaging
For seniors in assisted living communities, dry skin can be a nuisance that detracts from their overall happiness. Having skin that is itchy throughout the day and prone to flaking or breaking can cause stress, anxiety and depression. It can become difficult for seniors to avoid scratching their dry skin, especially for those that remain primarily stationary because continual itching can distract them as they rest. Itching can also be a problem for seniors with cognitive impairments who may have forgotten it's unwise to overscratch.
Itching can detract from the everyday life of many seniors. Clothes can be a source of discomfort and activities that were once enjoyable like exercising, playing board games, or enjoying time with grandchildren may no longer be fun if seniors have difficulty focusing on anything other than their dry skin irritation.
Other skin-related issues seniors face
Once the skin is broken, either from itching or lack of adequate moisturizing, wounds heal more slowly and can potentially become infected. The onset of skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis may be exacerbated by dry skin caused by winter weather. Seniors with diabetes who have dry skin are also at increased risk for experiencing ulcers.
These may cause more serious issues and even hospitalization if unnoticed and untreated, so it's important that seniors, health care professionals and even family members of assisted living residents are aware of how important healthy skin is during the winter.
Skin care measures
There are a variety of ways seniors can keep their skin healthy and prevent dryness from occurring.
- Wash gently and not too often to prevent skin from drying out. Applying soap in overabundance, using harsh soap or scrubbing too hard can dry out the skin. Very hot water can also remove moisture-retaining oils from the body, so only warm water should be used when bathing.
- Frequently apply lotions to fight direct dryness, especially following baths and before bed. Any moisturizer used should be gentle on the skin and fragrance-free. While applying lotion, the skin should be checked for any breaks, skin infections, or rashes.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- Use a humidifier to keep bedrooms and other living spaces from becoming too dry.
- Wear adequate clothing when outside during winter to prevent wind or frigid temperatures from drying the skin.