No matter if you live in sunny California or up in the woods of Wisconsin, the Winter season is here, and with it brings more chances of cold weather that can make you feeling sick. This is especially true for seniors. Older adults can feel colder than those in the twenties because their bodies do not retain heat as well as when they were younger. That is why it is more common for seniors to get sick during the winter and are more susceptible to getting a cold or even the flu. It is also harder for older adults to realize or be aware of having a cold. Seniors who do not seek treatment or help by a doctor, hypothermia may set in, which can be very dangerous for older adults.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hyperthermia is common among the elderly and those with very low body temperatures. It occurs when your body temp drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit . However, it can also happen if you feel cold from being outside after a strong rainfall, living in a cold house, or being in cold water. Hypothermia can cause many other health conditions to develop, such as kidney problems, liver damage, and heart attacks. Seniors should avoid cold places and check the temperature of their home regularly. Below are a few early signs of hypothermia that seniors should look out for.
- Cold feet and hands
- Puffy or swollen face
- Pale skin
- Shivering (in some cases)
- Slower than normal speech or slurring words
- Feeling sleepy
- Being angry or confused
More severe signs of hypothermia are:
- Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
- Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
- Slow heartbeat
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Blacking out or losing consciousness
Quick tips to prevent Hypothermia
Older adults should stay indoors as much as possible during the winter months. If you do go outdoors, make sure you are bundled up by wearing gloves or mittens, a warm hat, a winter coat, and a scarf to cover your mouth and nose. It is common for body heat to escape through an uncovered head or neck. Wearing lots of layers can also keep you warmer than one thick layer of clothing. Seniors should wear winter boots as well. If you do get wet while outside, dry off quickly. Wearing wet clothes can cause chills throughout your body. Wearing a waterproof coat or jacket if it’s snowing is also a good idea. Seniors should keep their house temperature at 65 degrees or warmer. One last thing- don’t forget to wear your thermals!
Dementia and Hypothermia
It is believed that 1 in 4 people who are diagnosed with dementia live alone. This statistic can be frightening to think about, especially during the cold winter months. Many elderly that live with dementia are not always aware of their surroundings and are unprepared to handle the cold. However, there are some helpful tips to keep seniors with dementia safe and warm during the harsh winter season. Here are some ideas.
- Seniors or caregivers should remove portable space heaters and avoid leaving the elderly person alone with an open fireplace.
- Use the automatic shutoff setting for stoves, including safety knobs.
- When using electric blankets and sheets or heating pads, use precaution. Make sure they understand that some can cause burns if not used properly.
- Keep the water heater set to 120°F to prevent burns.
- Install faucets that can mix both hot and cold water for better safety measures.
- Caregiver should also put red tape around vents, radiators, and other heating components so the senior will avoid touching them.
- Leave an extra house key outside the home in case a caregiver or emergency responder needs to get inside.
Common conditions to look out for in cold weather
Cold weather can cause many types of conditions to occur that are dangerous to be around, whether inside the home or out on the road. Some can affect the person personally and may have serious implications to your health and wellbeing. Here are just a few to consider when living alone or while driving in cold weather.
Fires and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
It is very common for older adults to use fireplaces or other heating sources to keep the home warm during the winter months. Many of these sources use natural gas or kerosene. However, if they are not properly vented, cleaned, or used, they can leak a dangerous gas- carbon monoxide, which you cannot see or smell. This deadly gas can cause a major catastrophe and become a fire hazard. Checking your appliances for any leaks or damage is also important to prevent fires. Always unplug them when not in use, especially space heaters. If you suspect your home has carbon monoxide poisoning, get outdoors and into fresh air immediately. Call emergency services for your home to be inspected. Seniors should also crack open a window whenever using a gas or kerosene stove and check all smoke detectors routinely.
Warning signs of carbon monoxide:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
Illness, Medicines, and Cold Weather
For some with continued health risks the cold can make it very difficult to breathe and stay warm on cold winter nights. For instance,those with thyroid problems may find it hard to maintain a normal body temperature. Other types of illnesses that are hard to manage in the winter are those with diabetes, arthritis, and even Parkinson’s disease. As mentioned before, those with dementia or memory problems itself should never be alone outside in the cold, since they tend to forget to dress accordingly in cold and wet days. In some cases, certain medications can cause your body temperature to fluctuate in the cold. Talk to your primary care physician for the best way to prevent hypothermia while on your meds.
Another common condition that can occur in cold or freezing weather is frostbite. This can be very dangerous for seniors since their blood flow is already much slower than the average young adult. Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes and the tissue under the skin are damaged down to the bone. Most people that are diagnosed with frostbite will have numbness or a prickling feeling on the skin level. The skin is often discolored or hard to the touch. The common places to find frostbite on the body is on the face, such as the nose, ears, cheeks, and chin. However, it can also be found on the fingers and toes. Some severe conditions of frostbite will cause a person to lose a limb, if not properly treated. Those who experience heart disease or circulation issues are at a higher risk of developing frostbite. The best way for seniors to prevent frostbite is by staying indoors on very cold winter days. If you must go out, bundle up as much as possible. Covering up all the essential body parts will lower your chances of frostbite. Be also aware of warning signs, such as grayish-yellow skin or an ash reflection. If you think you may be affected by frostbite, call for medical help immediately. Never run cold or hot water over the affected area, always warm water.
Falls are are common among the elderly, especially when the weather changes and the winter rolls in. Seniors who live in cold regions tend to receive more snow, ice, and experience freezing conditions, making it hard to walk in. Doing simple things like yard work and shoveling snow can be difficult for the elderly. Which can cause an older adult to lose their balance and fall. Caregivers and loved ones should help seniors outdoors by supervising them in these harsh conditions. Caregivers can also help by maintaining the grounds around the house by salting the walkways, shoveling the snow, and picking up fallen leaves. That way it will prevent the senior from falling or losing their balance. Seniors should also not hesitate to ask for assistance from their community members. Depending on your location, some communities have programs to help those in need during the winter months. Seniors should also be careful throughout the home too. Elderly can fall on steps that are wet and slippery from melted snow. Loved ones should also keep walkways clear of obstacles that seniors can trip over. It is also advised that seniors wear non-skid shoes or boots in cold weather, to prevent from falling.
Accidents while driving
It is not surprising that adults over 65 are more likely to be in car accidents than young adults. Especially as the weather changes from warm to cold, and road conditions get worse as the winter season moves along. Everyone, including seniors need to be vigilant and aware of roadwork and streets that may not be cleared of snow or ice. Although older adults have a right to leave their homes any time they want, it may be a good idea to be home before dusk. Seniors with poor vision or eyesight can find themselves in an accident much easier than those who do not have vision issues. In fact, some communities do suggest a curfew for certain demographics during the winter season. If you do leave your home, make sure your car is properly stocked with emergency supplies. This includes a first aid kit, flashlight, blankets, booster cables, windshield scraper, shovel, and extra warm clothing for cold winter nights. Seniors should also pack a bag of rock salt or sand, to prevent getting stuck in the snow or ice.
Other issues that can occur in cold weather
Heart conditions worsens
According to the American Heart Association, older adults who may experience conditions such as cardiovascular illnesses have an increased risk of falling, especially in cold temperatures. Seniors living in cold regions while having heart conditions can find it hard to breathe or have oxygen flow naturally throughout the body. Seniors who are very thin may also get cold much more faster than normal to overweight individuals because of the lack of body fat to keep the blood flowing. This doesn’t mean it is good to be overweight, but having a little more weight can help seniors stay warm during the winter.
Chronic pain may flare up
Cold weather can also do a number on chronic conditions. Seniors with chronic pain like arthritis can feel their symptoms worsens as the weather gets colder. As a result, many seniors tend to reach for pain medications to relieve these conditions. However, it is believed that taking excessive pain meds can leave an older adult with more pain. If you are experiencing more joint pain than usual, talk with your primary care physician for help and support. Some physicians recommend trying home remedies, such as epsom salt baths to relieve joint pain or muscle aches, especially during the winter season.
Changes in Sleep habits
When the cold weather rolls in, it is easy to feel more tired or even lazy to pull yourself out of bed. During the winter months, the sun doesn’t shine as long and it gets dark much earlier than during the summer. When winter comes, it’s easy to want to relax and stay in bed longer. Rest for seniors is good, but you should still stick with the same daily routine year round. Many people, including seniors who don’t get up and have breakfast at the same time as the rest of the year will feel sluggish throughout the day and may lose the energy to stay active. If you normally get up at 8 am in the summer months, there is no reason to change that, even in the winter. By staying with a routine throughout the year, it can also avoid sundowners syndrome, which occurs often in winter months because of less sunlight and is common among people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It is known to cause a state of confusion, as well as cause a person to become agitated, restless, and disoriented. Opening blinds and keeping living areas well lit can help avoid this from happening among older adults.