Simple Strategies to Keep Elders Safe and Comfortable During Cold Winter Weather


By Shelley Webb

Winter weather can be a trying season for anybody living in colder climates, but for those of us caring for seniors, it is a time to remember that the colder weather can pose a higher risk of health and safety challenges for these aging loved ones. The American Geriatric Society Foundation for health states that since older adults have slower metabolisms, they don't produce enough heat from their own body. They are also frequently affected by poor circulation and thus are prone to cold hands, feet, ears, nose, etc. That's why it's difficult for them to FEEL warm and why it's important to know how to keep them warm, both indoors and outdoors.

Some strategies to consider:

  • Keep thermostat between 68 and 70 degrees. It will be an additional expense, but a necessary one. (Low income seniors might be able to receive help with their heating bills. Check with the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR). A list of participating states (and other available assistance programs) can be obtained on their web site.
  • Space heaters are a good way to heat a small space, such as a bedroom or den, but be very careful that the heater has enough safety features so as not to place your loved-one in a dangerous situation. You will want to choose one that can be set to turn off when the room reaches a certain temperature or when the heating unit falls over. My own father tends to keep his room at 78-80 degrees.
  • Advise your elder to optimize clothing choices for warmth during the day by dressing in layers of loose-fitting, lightweight garments. This helps to keep warm air between each layer.
  • Layering additional blankets on the bed at night is helpful and works to keep warmth between layers. Electric blankets are not such a good idea for elders because they can sometimes burn delicate skin.
  • When going outdoors, elders should wear mittens instead of gloves because they allow space for warm air and for the fingers to touch each other, thereby generating warmth.
  • Eating enough food to keep their weight up is also important in keeping heat inside the body. Warms foods like oatmeal and soups are comforting and nutritious.
  • With the cold weather often comes continued ice and snow. This can increase an elderly person's chance of falling, so precautions must be taken for this situation, as well. I try to keep my father OFF the ice and snow as much as possible by parking the car in the garage and dropping him at the curb in front of buildings when possible. It's not always possible to do this though, so some other suggestions would be:
  • Provide your loved-one with non-skid boots to wear outdoors. Even when he or she is using a walker, the non-skid boots will be an improvement. (This may be a good time to introduce a walker if your aging loved one is not already using one.)
  • Replace the rubber tips on canes or walkers well before they are worn so that they won't become slippery when wet.
  • Pay attention to the walking surface and avoid any "slippery" areas.
  • Keep sidewalks at the elder's home clear and apply salt or sand to icy patches.
  • Keep a good, stable (stabilize with carpet-stay) doormat so that boots will not be slippery when re-entering the home.
  • If your loved one is living independently, be certain that their electric and/or gas bills are being paid. You might want to take note of who provides these services so that if a lapse in service takes place at a future date, it can easily be remedied.
  • Because seniors are often confined to their homes during these icy cold months, and can become lonely, check with your local area on aging or your place of worship for programs with "senior buddy visits".

With a little extra attention to comfort and safety, winter can be a very pleasant season for our elders.

Shelley Webb, a Geriatric Care Manger, has been a registered nurse for over 30 years with experience in the fields of neonatal intensive care, dialysis, case management and geriatrics. She founded The Intentional Caregiver in 2008 in order to support caregivers of aging parents and loved ones.
In her spare time, she enjoys gardening, raising chickens, ballet classes and wine tasting.

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