Caregiver Alert: Winter Weather & Cold Hazardous for Older People

Winter weather may be delightful to look at, but it can be frightful to deal with and dangerous.

Here in the Northeast, we get Nor’easters, which is like a hurricane in the winter with precipitation and wind. Occasionally, we will get an old-fashioned blizzard.

These winter weather events bring risks for all, especially older New Jerseyans. Older individuals tend to lose body heat very quickly, faster than younger people—which is why someone older tends to complain about being cold. It is not just them being ornery, it is legit, they get cold as part of their biology.

A big risk for this population is hypothermia, or when the body’s temperature drops. A body temperature of 95 degrees or lower is a dangerous condition that requires immediate medical attention.

This can happen both indoors and outside. Indoors, this can happen when the thermostat is set too low. A thermostat temperature of 65 degrees may be too low for some people and cause their body temperature to drop, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Caregivers need to check on their loved ones to ensure they are warm enough and dressing for the weather. If you think the residence is chilly, chances are it is not at the correct temperature to keep the loved one safe and healthy. Experts suggest a temperature of at least 68 degrees.

Cold, particularly hypothermia, can cause serious health problems including heart attacks, kidney problems and more. Cold also diminishes the body’s response to underlying conditions, such as diabetes, or medications.

Hypothermia may show one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, disorientation, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, poor control over body movements or slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

In addition to making sure the temperature is set correctly, caregivers should make sure their loved ones are dressed correctly, wearing layers if necessary. Socks and non-skid shoes help keep the overall person warm—we all hate cold feet!

Keep a blanket or throw nearby for someone to wrap around themselves, especially the neck and shoulders, which is where heat can escape. Keeping the core of the body warm is important.

Make sure loved ones eat enough food to keep up their weight. If they do not eat well, they might have less fat under their skin. Body fat helps the body to stay warm.

Older people should not be out shoveling snow, no matter how “fine” they seem. They are at greater risk for serious, even life-threatening injury, especially from a slip and fall on snow and ice.

In addition to serious health concerns, winter weather can cause power outages or damage and risks to the residence.

Caregivers should always have a backup plan or secondary power source if their loved one is dependent on electricity for medical or mobility needs.

The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management has a resource list and extensive information about how to cope with winter weather and the damage it may cause with a checklist for home safety in the cold.

Download the NIH Stay Safe in Cold Weather Booklet here.

If your loved one needs assistance with making sure they are dressed appropriately, eating nutritious meals and other activities of daily living, a professional caregiver can help.


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