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Winter -Protecting Older People

Gentle portrait of an elderly couple in winter

As your body becomes older, it becomes less able to respond to long exposure to cold winters. In cold weather, some older people may develop accidental hypothermia which is a drop in internal body temperature that can be deadly if not detected and treated properly.

Accidental Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition where your body temperature falls below normal, typically at 95°F or under. Accidental hypothermia may occur in anyone who is exposed to severe cold without enough protection. However, some older people develop accidental hypothermia after exposure to relatively mild cold.

Those most likely to develop accidental hypothermia are: the chronically ill, the poor who are unable to afford enough heating fuel, and those who do not take the right steps to keep warm.

There are people whose bodies cannot control their own temperature and they face the greatest danger. For unknown reasons, these people do not feel cold nor do they shiver so they cannot produce body heat when they need it.

The only sure way to detect hypothermia is to use a special low-reading thermometer which is available at most hospitals. A regular, non-digital thermometer will also do as long as you shake it down well. If your temperature is below 95°F or does not register, get emergency medical help right away.

Other signs of hypothermia may include:

  • An unusual change in appearance or behavior during cold weather
  • Slow and sometimes irregular heartbeat
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow or very slow breathing
  • Sluggishness
  • Confusion

Treatments consist of re-warming the person under a doctor’s supervision, preferably in a hospital.

Protective Measures

Senior Woman Reading Book By Fire At Home

  • Set the heat at 65°F in living and sleeping areas. Sick people may need it set higher.
  • Dress warmly even when indoors.
  • Eat enough food so your body has energy.
  • Stay as active as possible so you don’t get cold from sitting still.
  • Keep warm in bed by wearing enough clothing and using blankets.
  • If you take medicine to treat anxiety, depression, nervousness, or nausea, ask your doctor whether the medication might affect the control of body temperature.
  • Ask friends or neighbors to look in on you once or twice a day, particularly during a cold spell.
  • See if your community has a telephone check-in or personal visit service for the elderly or home-bound.