How to

26 October 2016

Keeping the Elderly Warm During Winter

Global warming could lead to increasingly colder winters, and the dangers of a cold winter for the elderly are very real. As temperatures plunge outside, they can follow suit inside if a home is inadequately heated, and this drop can lead to a corresponding fall in body temperature, eventually leading to hypothermia in extreme cases.

The elderly are particularly at risk for several reasons:

  • They feel the cold less.
  • Their bodies are not as good at regulating temperature.
  • They can have chronic illnesses that can be exacerbated by the cold.
  • They often drink too little and can get dehydrated, and this is made worse by the cold.
  • They are often quite inactive and may not have appropriate winter clothing.
  • The high price of fuel means some are forced to under-heat their house.

All of these issues must be addressed where possible to ensure that the elderly remain healthy in their homes, and the proper courses of action come under a few main categories:

1)  Keep housing well-heated and avoid cold exposure.

For guidelines on fortifying a well-heated winter home, see our articles on preparing both the interior and the exterior of your home for winter.

Keep the heating warm, between 20-24°C, and wear several layers of warm, comfortable clothes. This is especially important in the morning, when metabolism is still slow. At night, too, make sure to use a thick duvet and wear thermal clothes, including socks.

To avoid exposure to the cold weather, make sure you pay attention to the weather forecast, and avoid going out in exceptionally cold, wet, or stormy weather. If it absolutely can’t be avoided, wrap up warm in proper winter clothing.

2)  Sustain healthy habits in terms of food, drink and exercise.

Drink enough water to keep hydrated, even if not feeling particularly thirsty, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Do, however, feel free to drink plenty of hot drinks and eat hot food to help raise body temperature. Try to stay moving around the house to keep warm and encourage good circulation.

3)  Consult with your doctor over potential illness and medication complications.

Consult your doctor if you have any chronic medical conditions, as these may make you more affected by the cold. This also applies if you are taking any regular medications, particularly sleeping medications or strong painkillers.

4)  Seek medical assistance if hypothermia is suspected.

If you, or the elderly person you are looking after, seem cold or inactive, be alert to potential symptoms of hypothermia. These include:

  • Lower alertness
  • Confusion and/or slurred speech
  • Cold skin
  • Blue colour on fingertips/lips

Bear in mind that the elderly person may not shiver or even feel cold, and that it is generally not possible to measure temperature with a home thermometer as these are usually designed to only measure raises in temperature, so pay close attention to the physical symptoms.

If the elderly person continues to deteriorate, and their symptoms worsen, go to the hospital immediately. Hypothermia poses a great risk to old people as their respiratory system and heart functions are weaker and can be adversely affected, so don’t hesitate to either summon assistance or take them to hospital. Whilst waiting, make sure they are warm and dry, add extra clothes and blankets and give them a warm beverage. For more detailed tips on dealing with hypothermia see our guide here.

Extra care needs to be taken of elderly relatives or neighbours that live alone. They may have difficulty heating the home or keeping warm with proper clothes and meals. They may also suffer a fall and not able to reach help, which can be much more problematic in winter. Make sure to keep in regular touch with them, that they are aware of emergency numbers, and that their details are available to any local elderly welfare services that may be available.

Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.