It's cold outside - prevent hypothermia in older adults

Friday, January 6, 2017

By Kathy Stewart, VP Nursing Aegis Living

Temperatures in the Seattle area are expected to hover near freezing until Friday. Even for the healthy and young, the chill can be felt through your coat as you wrap your arms around yourself to keep warm. You bundle up just to run out to the mailbox.

By U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Justin Weaver
USAF photo gallery (permalink), Public Domain,
We must prepare our elderly loved ones for preventing low body temperature, or hypothermia.

While normal body temperature averages 98.6 degrees, hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops below 95 degrees.

If you suspect your loved one has hypothermia, they must get immediate care. Winter can be an inconvenience or a nuisance for those who dislike cold weather; but for the elderly, cold weather can be a serious health hazard.

As we get older, our bodies become less efficient at regulating our body temperature
. This puts many seniors, especially those over age 75, at risk for hypothermia. What’s more, hypothermia can happen inside the walls of a loved one’s home, not just when they’re outside in the elements.

The reasons the elderly are at higher risk of hypothermia:

1. Slower metabolism. Seniors have a more difficult time maintaining a normal body temperature. Even in their home, the risk for hypothermia increases if the room temperature dips below 65 degrees.

2. Chronic medical conditions. Many common diseases among the elderly can make it more difficult for seniors to stay warm. Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease or an underactive thyroid can increase the risk factor.

3. Medications can affect body temperature. Some medications may change how the body regulates temperature. Antidepressants, nausea medications and some over-the-counter cold medications can make seniors more vulnerable to colder temperatures.

4. Fixed income. Seniors on a tight budget, in an effort to save money, may not use the heat or may not keep their home warm enough.

How can hypothermia be prevented inside the home?

Of course, the obvious answer is to keep the home warm with the thermostat never dipping below 65 degrees. Talk to their physician to see if their health, medical conditions or medications are putting them at greater risk for hypothermia.

Keep plenty of warm blankets and sweaters within an arm’s reach. If they have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, double check their wood supply. Be sure your loved one has a working cell phone or technology that alerts emergency response.

How can hypothermia be prevented outdoors?

When outdoors, encourage your loved one to bundle up in proper multi-layer attire to protect them from the cold, moisture and wind. We suggest they wear a warm hat since large amounts of body heat can escape through your head.

Maybe consider getting them a holiday gift of wool socks, hats, gloves, scarves and thermal-based layers for under their clothing to keep them extra warm and comfortable.

During these cold months, it’s not advised for the elderly to work outside for long periods of time. Offer to help with yard work, hire help during the winter to assist them, and offer to run errands. It is best to warm the car prior to your loved one entering the vehicle.

Many of us would not think twice about getting hypothermia on a 60-degree day, but it’s different for our aged loved ones. On a day that you might not even wear a coat, they could be at risk for hypothermia. Keep them safe!


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