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Carter | Nursing & Rehabilitation

Older Adults and Extreme Cold

October 17, 2023

Older adults are more sensitive to cold (and heat) than younger adults. Body temperature below 95°F, or hypothermia, increases their risk of heart disease and kidney or liver damage, especially if they have a history of low body temperature or have had hypothermia in the past.

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is often caused by being in very cold temperatures. When you are cold, you begin to lose heat faster than your body can produce it. Eventually, you will use up your stored energy, causing your body temperature to go down.

  • Hypothermia affects the brain, making it hard to move or think clearly. That’s why it’s dangerous—because you may be unaware of what’s happening and how to stop it.
  • While hypothermia is most common at very cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if you become chilled from rain, sweat, or being in cold water.
  • If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, memory loss, or thyroid problems, you may take medicines that make it hard to regulate your body temperature. Ask your doctor if this is an issue for you or any questions you might have about hypothermia.

How to Tell if Someone Has Hypothermia and What to do

  • Early signs include cold feet or hands, swollen face, slower-than-normal speech, and feeling sleepy, angry, or confused. The person’s skin may become pale, and they may begin shivering.
  • Later signs include jerking movements that the person can’t control in their arms and legs, slow heartbeat, slow, shallow breathing, and going in and out of consciousness.
  • If you see someone showing signs of hypothermia, call 911. While waiting for 911:
    • Move the person to a warmer place.
    • Wrap them in warm, dry clothes,
    • If necessary, remove all clothing and make skin-to-skin contact with the person to transfer body heat. Wrap yourself and the person in dry blankets to stay warm.
    • Give them something warm to drink (no alcohol or caffeine).

Learn more about hypothermia and frostbite prevention and steps to take when you recognize someone else has hypothermia.

How to Help Someone with Dementia Avoid Hypothermia

About 1 in 4 people who have dementia live alone. People with dementia may not be aware of their surroundings. Learn how to make a home safe for someone with dementia, and use these tips to help someone with dementia stay safe during very cold weather.

  • Remove portable space heaters and don’t leave the person alone with an open fireplace. Use safety knobs and use a stove with automatic shutoff settings.
  • Advise the person to carefully use electric blankets and sheets or heating pads; explain they can cause burns.
  • Put red tape around vents, radiators, and other heating components to remind the person to avoid touching them.
  • Keep the water heater set to 120°F to prevent burns. Consider installing faucets that mix hot and cold water.
  • Leave an extra house key outside the home in case a caregiver or emergency responder needs to get inside.

How to Avoid Hypothermia at Home When It’s Very Cold Outside

You can get hypothermia while indoors if outside cold weather persists or when you are working in cold environments, such as a storage freezer.  Use the steps below to prevent hypothermia while indoors.

  • Eat a healthy diet every day to make sure your body has enough energy to keep you warm.
  • Make sure to stay hydrated
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Wear warm, thick clothing, including a hat and scarf if needed. Try to keep a blanket nearby.
  • If you live alone, ask friends and family to check on you.
  • Check your thermostat or an easy-to-read indoor thermometer often. If you don’t have an easy-to-read thermometer, try to have one installed if possible.
    • Keep the house around 68°F to 70°F.
      • Maintain your heating and air conditioning system.
      • Block off any unused rooms and drafts from windows and doors.
      • If you use a fireplace or wood stove as your main heating source, have your chimney or flue inspected every year.
      • If your home doesn’t hold heat well, have the insulation checked.

Financial help is sometimes available for people who can’t afford to weatherize their home or pay their heating bills.

For financial help getting your windows, doors, and furnace checked to make sure they are cold-weather-ready, or for other weather-related changes to your home, contact your local Weatherization Assistance Program.

For help with your energy bills, contact:

If you are using a portable heater, here are 7 Safety Tips from Consumer Product Safety Commission.

How to Avoid Hypothermia if you Go Outside During Cold Winter

  • Wear warm, thick clothing, including a hat, scarf, and gloves, as well as loose layers to increase the amount of body heat.
  • Change your clothes as soon as you get inside. Wearing wet clothes causes your body temperature to drop. Dry clothes allow your body to

warm itself.

  • If you drive somewhere, be prepared in case you get stranded.
    • Keep warm blankets and clothing in your car.
    • Keep food and water in your car.
    • Keep a phone charger in your car.
    • Take any necessary medicines with you.

Create a winter emergency supply kit to keep in your car

How to Avoid Falling if You Go Outside in Icy Weather

During the winter months, it’s important to make sure that surfaces are dry and safe for walking to reduce the risk of falling. These tips can you help prevent falls in icy and snowy weather:

  • Make sure there is enough lighting outdoors, especially near walkways and stairs. Low lighting is a major cause of falls. Motion-sensor lights might be useful.
  • Keep outside walkways and steps clear of snow, ice, and any objects
  • If your home’s main entrance is often icy during the winter months, use a different entrance if you can.
  • Make sure your steps are sturdy and have textured grip to reduce falls if the weather is icy or wet.
  • If you use walking aids such as a cane, walker, or a wheelchair, dry the wheels or tips of each before entering your home.
  • Keep a small table or shelf near the entry door to put items while unlocking the door. This reduces distractions and dangers of slipping or tripping while trying to enter your home.

How You Can Help an Older Adult Avoid Hypothermia

As a friend, family member, or caregiver to an older adult during the winter months, you can:

  • Consider having a remote indoor air temperature sensor or monitor installed.
  • Have the name and contact information of a nearby family member or friend who can regularly check in on them.
  • Create a care plan with them to provide structure for both of you. The care plan should include ways to maintain a healthy body temperature and note if any medicines they take affect their ability to regulate body temperature.
  • If you are checking in on an older adult, try to check in on them in person or by telephone as often as possible or at agreed times to make sure they:
    • Are staying hydrated.
    • Have the living space set to a comfortable temperature.
    • Are keeping warm.
    • Don’t show signs of hypothermia.

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