One reason why cold weather can be so dangerous is because older adults can lose body heat very fast—faster than when they were young. Changes in the body that come with aging can make it harder for seniors to be aware of that they are actually getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous situation for an older person before he or she even knows what’s happening. Doctors call this serious problem “hypothermia.”
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when one’s body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature colder than 95°F can cause many health problems, including heart attacks, kidney problems, or liver damage.
Being outside in the cold and even being in a very cold house can lead to hypothermia. But there are steps older adults can take to lower their chances of getting hypothermia. Here are some things that can be done to stay warm both inside and outside the home!
Keep warm inside
Many people don’t realize that hypothermia can occur inside as well as outside. Living in a cold house, apartment, or other building can cause hypothermia. Always pay attention to the inside temperature and to whether the older adult is dressed warmly enough.
People who have one or more illnesses can have trouble keeping warm. Always pay attention to the inside temperature and to whether the older adult is dressed warmly enough. Even if the temperature in the home is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, it still might not be warm enough to keep an older adult safe. This is a special problem for seniors who live alone, because there is no one else to feel the chilliness of the house or notice that the senior is having symptoms of hypothermia.
Here are some tips for keeping seniors warm while inside:
- Set the temperature at 68°F or higher. 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 the house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep blinds and curtains closed. If there are gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out.
- Make sure the senior is dressed warmly on cold days, even when staying in the house. Use a blanket over the senior’s legs. Instruct him or her to wear socks and slippers.
- When heading off to sleep, seniors can wear long underwear under pajamas and use extra covers. Have the senior wear a cap or hat.
- Make sure the senior eats enough food to keep up his or her weight. Older adults who don’t eat well might have less fat under the skin, and it’s this fat that helps the body stay warm.
- Seniors should drink alcohol moderately, if at all. While many people think alcohol warms you up, the opposite is true: Alcoholic drinks actually cause the body to lose heat.
- Ask family or friends to check on the senior during cold weather. If a power outage leaves the home without heat, the senior should stay with a relative or friend until the problem is fixed.
It’s tempting to warm a room with a space heater. But some space heaters are fire hazards, and others can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has information on the use of space heaters. Read the following for more information: Reducing Fire Hazards for Portable Electric Heaters and Seven Highly Effective Portable Heater Safety Habits.
Bundle up on windy, cold days
A heavy wind can quickly lower one’s body temperature. Check the weather forecast for windy and cold days. On those days, try to keep the senior inside or in a warm place. If the senior has to go out, he or she should wear warm clothes and not stay out in the cold and wind for a long time.
Here are some other tips:
- Dress the senior for the weather if he or she has to go out on chilly, cold, or damp days.
- Have the senior wear loose layers of clothing. The air between the layers helps to keep the body warm.
- Put a hat and scarf on the senior. The body can lose heat when the head and neck are uncovered.
- Make sure the senior wears a waterproof coat or jacket if it’s snowy.
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?
Seniors can become confused if their body temperature gets very low. Talk to family and friends about the warning signs so they can be aware and watch out for the senior’s wellbeing.
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 911 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.
What to do after you call 911:
- 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.
Information courtesy of National Institute on Aging.