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Seniors in the Winter Months

Updated 7/28/15 10:17 am | Seniors and caregivers everywhere are preparing for the winter chill, and Alert1 wants to help by giving you guys' winter safety tips. As most people can attest, the colder months come with a number of additional challenges. These range from winterizing the home to navigating more difficult conditions on the road. The challenges of the winter months can be even more strenuous if you are a senior caregiver. Cold weather not only creates the potential for more emergencies, but it can also put older adults at a greater health risk. If you are a family caregiver, preparing your loved ones for the impending change in seasons is crucial. Check out these winter safety tips.

Hypothermia Affects Seniors

Cold weather poses a number of health risks to seniors that do not typically affect younger adults. Most notably, the elderly are more likely to get hypothermia than the general population. Cold weather in the winter season typically lowers internal body temperature and hypothermia occurs when a person’s normal temperature drops from 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees. Hypothermia can be deadly if not treated quickly and many people are surprised to learn that it can set in anywhere. You don’t have to be living in a cold weather state and you don’t even have to be outside. Chronic health conditions such as senior arthritis and medications such as some over-the-counter cold remedies can lower the body’s resistance to cold. Your loved one’s internal body temperature may drop and they may not even realize it. Seniors can even develop a mild form of hypothermia in a cold room. Alert1 has safety tips to help prevents your loving senior from getting hypothermia.

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Tips to Prevent Hypothermia for Seniors

As a caregiver, you can help protect your loved one from hypothermia during the winter. A good place to start is with their medical history. Ask your loved one’s doctor if any of the medical conditions they have or prescriptions they take could be affecting their body heat. Be sure your loved one is eating enough to maintain their weight. When you visit, make sure their pantry is full of healthy staples and stock their freezer with healthy home cooked meals. Call and give your loved one a weather forecast in the morning. Remind them to stay inside or in a warm place on cold and windy days during the winter. Regardless of where your loved one lives, whether they are aging in place or they are residing in an assisted living facility, pay attention to the thermostat and make sure they are dressing appropriately. Help them get out their winter clothing and be sure they have extra blankets to keep cozy. A warm pair of socks and a comfortable pair of house shoes or an electric blanket might make a nice Christmas present. Some winter safety tips to consider are buying portable heaters for your loved ones. As we all know winter nights can get extremely cold, so it is important to keep their bedroom warm.

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Signs Your Loved One May Have Hypothermia

Caregivers should be on the lookout for the “umbles” – stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. Symptoms of hypothermia may include (but are not limited to):

  • weak pulse
  • shallow breathing
  • confusion or sleepiness
  • slowed or slurred speech
  • stiffness in the arms or legs
  • change in behavior or personal appearance
  • slow reactions or poor control over body movement
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How to Combat Early Signs of Hypothermia

Take notes of these safety tips as they may come in handy. If you think your loved one may have hypothermia, the first thing you should do is take their temperature. If the reading does not rise above 96 degrees, call for emergency help. What can you do until help arrives? As you wait, make sure your aging loved one is warm and dry. Wrap them in blankets and move them to the warmest place in the house. You can also gently sit or lie next to them and share your body heat. If time permits, make your loved one hot tea or soup to sip on while they wait. Boost your senior’s internal body temperature is the first priority when hypothermia strikes. Check out this list of Winter Weather Frequently Asked Questions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You will find answers to questions about hypothermia, frostbite, wind chill effect, and more. 

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Seniors and the Winter Blues

While there is a serious risk of hypothermia for seniors during the winter, it is not the only health risk they face. In late fall and winter, 4 to 6 percent of Americans experience a form of depression called winter-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Another 10 to 20 percent have milder cases. SAD is more common among younger adults, but senior caregivers should still be aware of its risks. People who struggle with depression or anxiety year round, as well as people who are more housebound, may find their typical symptoms intensified by the isolating effects of cold winter weather. Many seniors live alone, struggle with feeling isolated from family and friends, or take medication that can also increase feelings of depression.

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Symptoms of Seniors with SAD

SAD looks and feels differently for everyone, but caregivers should be on the lookout for changes in their loved one’s mood or personality. Symptoms of SAD may include (but are not limited to):

  • changing sleep habits
  • anxious or “empty” feelings
  • irritability or restlessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in formerly enjoyable activities
  • fatigue or decreased energy
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering details or making decisions
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How to Recover from SAD

If you suspect your loved one has SAD, make an appointment with their doctor as soon as possible. The winter blues may be a warning sign of a bigger health problem or mental illness. Their doctor may recommend senior therapy, behavioral therapy, or medicinal treatment. Talking therapy can also help seniors overcome or better cope with some of the symptoms of SAD. The recommend treatments above are the same methods a doctor would prescribe for other types of depression. Be sure to consult your physician to find a specific treatment.  

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Caregivers Can Help Seniors with SAD

If your loved one lives alone, make it a point to visit them more frequently and to be more engaging during your visit. Bring multiple family members to visit your aging loved one to properly socialize. Open their curtains or blinds to allow as much light into the house as possible. Sit by the window and read a book out loud, do a crossword puzzle together, or play cards. There are also support groups that help your senior voice their experience with SAD. If the weather permits and your loved one is physically able to, get outside into the fresh air every day. Physical activity, even if it is only a few minutes, will help boost their mood.

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Winter Preparedness Tips for Seniors

It's no secret that winter weather is treacherous, so it's important to be prepared. Prior to the onset of cold weather, my friends and colleagues who are caregivers are busy getting their loved ones ready for the change in seasons. You can winterize your loved one’s home, stock their pantry with healthy staples, fill their freezer with healthy home cooked meals, and make sure they have plenty of warm blankets and clothing. You may also want to consider equipping your loved ones with a personal emergency response system, so they can stay in contact should a weather-related incident occur. This useful device will allow them to get in contact with friends, family or emergency crews depending on the situation.

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Alert1 wants to know: Do you notice a change in your loved one’s mood as the weather grows colder? How do you help them stay healthy and happy? What kind of preparations did you or your loved ones make prior to the onset of winter?