Winter’s Secret Danger for Seniors
As the winter months stretch on, it’s important to keep in mind how the body ages and its potential changing response to low temperatures. The sad fact is that in the U.S., approximately 600 seniors annually die from hypothermia, a condition where a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. While it seems like an easy condition to avoid, it’s surprisingly easier to be a victim to hypothermia as we age.
You don’t have to be outdoors or even live in a particularly cold area for your body to dip dangerously low; there are many factors that can make you more susceptible to hypothermia. For example:
A decreased ability to sense temperature change as well as a reduced ability to shiver (the body’s natural way to create more heat).
An inability to easily communicate to a caregiver that he or she is cold, or to get items like blankets or sweaters to warm themselves up.
The presence of a chronic disease or certain medications that can alter how a body regulates temperature.
The use of alcohol, which can lower the body’s temperature.
If you are caring for a senior, or you yourself want to become more aware of the signs of hypothermia, you can start with watching for the “-umbles” – that is, the person stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. Additional warning signs include:
Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
Pervasive shivering or no shivering at all (sometimes it’s harder for the body to shiver as it ages)
Stiffness in the arms or legs
Confusion or sleepiness
Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
Poor control over body movements or slow reactions
If you are worried someone is exhibiting signs of hypothermia, be sure to take their temperature with an accurate thermometer. If the reading shows a body temp of below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, call 9-1-1 right away and warm them up as quickly as possible with blankets and sweaters. Hypothermia can be fatal in certain situations. Give them something warm to drink, but avoid alcohol and caffeine (like in regular coffee).
Like many dangerous conditions, prevention is key. If your loved one is in an assisted living facility, make sure they have easy access to sweaters or hats, or other items of clothing that can be layered and removed as needed. If living at home, make sure the furnace is working and encourage them to keep their thermostat set to at least 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. It’s tempting to use a space heater to save on heating costs, but keep in mind that these require extra safety precautions, and it’s always a best practice to have working carbon monoxide detectors in the house, along with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
If you or your loved one lives on a limited income and are worried about paying the heating bill, there are often ways to get assistance paying the heating bill in the winter months, both from government agencies and utility companies. Help plan ahead for other cold-weather needs like having someone lined up to shovel the sidewalk or clear the driveway. Keep an eye on weather reports to avoid having to go outside on the coldest days, and make a plan for where to stay during power outages. Don’t wait until the harshest weather hits to prepare for the cold, and be sure to check in on your loved ones or senior neighbors regularly to ensure they are enduring the cold months with everything they need.
The winter season can be an enjoyable, festive time of the year when you are prepared and warm; these extra precautions help ensure a healthier, happier holiday season.