Cold Weather Safety
For those cold winter months
Winter can be a beautiful time of the year, but when the arctic winds, mounds of snow and bone-chilling temperatures roll in, the season’s harsh side can prove especially dangerous for senior adults. Slick sidewalks lead to falls; colds and the flu escalate; and depression looms because of indoor confinement and less social interaction. To counter the wintertime risks for older adults, basic planning and prevention can make the cold weather manageable, and even enjoyable.
Like most people, many of us will feel cold every now and then during the winter months; but what you may not know is that just being really cold can make you very sick. Older adults can lose body heat fast and changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what’s happening. Doctors call this serious problem hypothermia.
NOW WHAT IS HYPOTHERMIA?
Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature of 95°F or lower can cause many health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.
Being outside in the cold, or even being in a very cold house, can lead to hypothermia. Try to prepare yourself when out in cold places, and pay attention to how cold it is where you are. You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia.
Before we go into the signs of hypothermia, to help families ensure their seniors stay warm and safe during winter months, we recommend the following precautions:
STAY WARM INDOORS
A comfortable thermostat setting in winter is 68° to 70° F (20° C to 21° C). Many elders push their thermostats to higher temperatures, but this promotes over-dry skin and nasal passages and raises the heating bill. Instead, seniors who feel chilled might consider wearing thicker socks, fleece slippers and a thin, thermal undershirt and leggings. Today’s lightweight “long johns” trap body heat, wick away moisture and layer well beneath outer clothes. Wearing a scarf around the neck and a knit hat also can increase one’s warmth around the house. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms, and keep the basement door closed. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts. Make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep your blinds and curtains closed. If you have gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out.
ILLNESS, MEDICINES, AND COLD WEATHER
Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm.
- Thyroid problems can make it hard to maintain normal body temperature.
- Diabetes can keep blood from flowing normally to provide warmth.
- Parkinson’s disease and arthritis can make it hard to put on more clothes, use a blanket, or get out of the cold.
- Memory loss can cause a person to go outside without the right clothing.
Taking some medicines and not being active also can affect body heat. These include medicines you get from your doctor and those you buy over-the-counter, such as some cold medicines. Ask your doctor if the medicines you take may affect body heat. Always talk with your doctor before you stop taking any medication.
BEWARE OF SLICK OUTDOOR CONDITIONS
Beware of slick outdoor conditions. Inclement weather can create a buildup of snow, ice, and mud on walkways and driveways. Outdoor fall prevention includes these tips: wear nonskid boots, get help with snow shoveling, use ice melt or sand for traction, and watch diligently for black ice.
WEAR APPROPRIATE CLOTHING OUTDOORS
To prevent heat loss or hypothermia when body temperature drops too low, the elderly who venture into the cold should wear light, layered, loose-fitting clothing under an insulated, waterproof winter coat. Outerwear with a fleece lining and windproof shell is a plus. A hat is a must since as much as 50 percent of body heat is lost through the head. Weatherproof, lined gloves or mittens that still allow for flexibility are also a smart answer to the cold.
STAY CURRENT ON IMMUNIZATIONS
Seniors with a weakened immune system are more vulnerable to catching colds and the flu or more severe illnesses including pneumonia. Older adults should consult with their doctor about seasonal and year-round immunizations that are best for their individual overall health.
CONSUME A BALANCED DIET
Individuals who remain indoors more during winter find it tempting to eat starchy convenience foods and skip fresh fruits and vegetables. Adding vegetables to soups and fruits to smoothies is an easy way to add vitamin-enriched foods to a senior’s diet. With less natural sunlight during winter to boost a body’s vitamin D level, eating vitamin-D fortified foods including grains, milk and seafood can help.
Although the elderly may not feel as thirsty in cooler weather, drinking six to eight glasses of liquid a day is still advised. Hot tea, apple cider, and cocoa are fun additions to a wintertime beverage list but stay mindful of the extra sugar and calories.
WARD OFF ISOLATION AND DEPRESSION
Harsh weather invites less social interaction, and for many seniors, it can put a damper on mental health. To prevent loneliness and the winter blues in the elderly, schedule regular outings, personal visits, phone calls, and social networking. Staying connected with others helps trigger the body’s natural mood lifters including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Be prepared for power outages and other emergencies. Every home needs a year-round emergency preparedness kit that includes a flashlight, batteries and first aid supplies.
DON’T FORGET THE CAR
For safe wintertime driving, good wipers and tires with plenty of snow-gripping treads are essential. Always keep the gas tank near full and carry an ice scraper, windshield washer fluid, and a safety kit. Before getting on the road, it is smart for seniors to share their travel routes and expected arrival times with family or friends. Traveling with a charged cellphone and a car charger is another safety tip for any season of the year.
We also advise families to check in daily with their elder loved ones who are living alone throughout the winter. Home healthcare companies like Right at Home provide senior care services including regular home visits for everything from companion care to driving the elderly to appointments, errands, and wintertime activities.
WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS OF HYPOTHERMIA?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia. Look for clues. Is the house very cold? Is the person not dressed for cold weather? Is the person speaking slower than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance? Watch for the signs of hypothermia in yourself, too. You might become confused if your body temperature gets very low. Talk to your family and friends about the warning signs so they can look out for you.
EARLY SIGNS OF HYPOTHERMIA:
- Cold feet and hands
- Puffy or swollen face
- Pale skin
- Shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
- Slower than normal speech or slurring words
- Acting sleepy
- Being angry or confused
LATER SIGNS OF HYPOTHERMIA:
- Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
- Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
- Slow heartbeat
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Blacking out or losing consciousness
Call 9-1-1 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.
WHAT TO DO AFTER YOU CALL 9-1-1:
- Try to move the person to a warmer place.
- Wrap the person in a warm blanket, towels, or coats—whatever is handy. Even your own body warmth will help. Lie close, but be gentle.
- Give the person something warm to drink, but avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine, such as regular coffee.
- Do not rub the person’s legs or arms.
- Do not try to warm the person in a bath.
- Do not use a heating pad.
With safety steps in place, aging adults can enjoy more of the beauty in winter, even though it is not particularly kind to seniors, but following these safety tips, they can enjoy the winter months with their friends and family.