When my dad moved into a senior apartment, it drove me crazy that he kept the thermostat set at 78 degrees. Didn’t matter if it was summer or winter, when I visited him I dressed in layers because his apartment was always hot. Elderly people lose body heat faster as they age. This simple fact made me worry about him getting hypothermia in the winter.
So, I checked into how to prevent hypothermia in the elderly:
- Set home temperature to at least 68 – 70 degrees.
- Inside the home: wear socks, slippers, a hat or scarf, and cover up with an afghan.
- Outside: wear layers of clothing plus thermal underwear. Use both a hat and a neck scarf, plus gloves and heavy socks.
- Limit exposure to the cold
- Check on the senior in cold weather. Move them to a heated place if the power goes out.
How Can Hypothermia Be Prevented?
Hypothermia in the elderly results when their body temperature drops to around 95 degrees (normal is about 98.6). This low temperature can be life-threatening. It can also lead to kidney problems, heart attacks, and liver damage.
Hypothermia happens because of:
- A reduced ability to perceive temperature changes
- A lower metabolic rate – this makes it harder to keep a normal body temperature in cool or cold conditions
- Some chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, stroke, Parkinson’s, thyroid conditions)
- A decrease in blood vessel constriction, which leads to a reduction in shivering
- Some medications
- Confusion (paradoxical undressing) – sometimes confusion can cause someone who is already hypothermic to begin removing clothing in an attempt to feel better. This is called paradoxical undressing. What it really means is that they lose body heat faster.
Even though my parents and I lived in the Deep South, we got cold weather and snow often enough to concern me. While Mom was alive, I knew someone was keeping an eye on Dad when he puttered in the yard or shoveled the driveway. But once my dad was alone, I took steps to be sure he was safe in the winter.
This video gives a great overview of what happens to the body during hypothermia. The part that focuses specifically on hypothermia in the elderly starts at about the 4:15 point:
Keeping Warm At Home
The year he lived by himself in their house before moving to his small apartment, I made sure he kept his thermostat at a minimum of 72F, even though he wanted to turn it down to save money.
The National Institute on Aging recommends setting indoor heat to “at least 68 – 70 degrees.” To remind Dad of this, I put “68 – 70F” on a sticky note and hung it over the thermostat. Even a few degrees matters in chilly weather – cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can bring on hypothermia in seniors.
Dad’s house was fairly new and not very drafty, but you may need to caulk your parent’s windows or use weather-stripping to minimize drafts. Also keep the basement door closed and stop drafts at the doors with rolled up towels.
If your parent lives in a nursing home or a group facility, keep an eye on the indoor temperature. It may not be as warm as it should be. In this case, provide plenty of sweaters, afghans, and thermal underwear to keep your loved one warm.
Wearing The Right Clothes In Cold Weather
Dad and I talked about him needing to wear a sweater or flannel shirt inside the house. This wasn’t a problem because his 94 year-old body got cold easily. I took an extra step and brought him an afghan for the couch to drape over his legs or shoulders while reading or watching television.
We also discussed that he should wear socks and slippers inside the house. He liked to sleep in bare feet and short-legged pajamas, so I questioned him often to be sure he wore a robe when he wasn’t in bed.
I also got him a light thermal blanket to put under his regular blanket so that he had extra warmth while he was sleeping. He nixed an electric blanket, but they are great for ensuring that people stay warm at night.
Little reminders can make a big difference. Dad put a cap on the closet shelf right above his coat so he would remember to wear it when he went outside.
We kept a spare pairs of gloves in the car and he put his regular pair into his upturned hat when he put it away.
He also stuffed a warm fleece scarf into the sleeve of his coat when he hung it up, so the scarf was always handy.
Accidental Hypothermia – Windchills And Cold Weather
There were times the temperature dropped and the wind chill was enough that he needed to wear thermal underwear outside. Luckily, Dad had been born and raised in Chicago and was used to harsh winters, so thermal underwear, scarves, hats, and gloves were second nature to him.
Since he’d grown up in Chicago and had also lived in Colorado, he was used to the cold. He had shoveled snow, put up Christmas lights, and done outside activities during the winter all his life. But, this also meant he didn’t think about how long he stayed outside.
If you’re trying to prevent hypothermia in a senior, you need to limit their exposure to the elements. For example, if Dad got wet while shoveling snow, that would make his body temperature drop faster. Sweating because of the exertion also contributes to hypothermia.
Wind chills cool the body’s internal temperature. This chart from the National Weather Service shows the effect of wind on outside temperatures:
Get your senior parent to carry a cellphone when they go outside so they can call someone if they slip and fall. This was especially tough for Dad to remember because it wasn’t a habit.
Check on your senior parent frequently during cold weather. If you can’t check on them, ask a friend or family member to call or visit them. It’s a good idea to have someone stay with them during particularly cold weather or severe storms.
If the power goes out, move the elderly person to a heated place as soon as possible.
What Is The First Sign Of Hypothermia?
Often, the first sign of hypothermia is shivering. Other signs include:
- slurred or slowed speech
- moving slower than normal
Because symptoms come on gradually, the person often isn’t aware they are in danger. Also, confusion can make them take risks.
How Do You Cure Hypothermia?
If you are concerned that your senior parent may have hypothermia, don’t wait. The first thing to do is call 911 to get immediate medical attention.
That being said, there are some measures you can take while you are waiting for help to arrive:
- Limit your parent’s movement and be gentle. Don’t massage or rub them. The Mayo Clinic notes that “excessive, vigorous or jarring movements may trigger cardiac arrest.”
- If possible, help your parent move slowly out of the cold area. If you can’t move them, keep them in a horizontal position (lying down) and shield them from the cold.
- If they are lying down, use a coat or a blanket underneath them to insulate them from the cold ground. Remember to be gentle when placing these items under your parent. You can also use your own body heat to keep them warm by lying next to them.
- Cover your parent with blankets or coats. Make sure their head is covered – use a scarf or hat (or part of a blanket) to cover exposed skin on their head and face. Leave their mouth and nose uncovered so they can breathe.
- If they are wearing wet clothes, remove them if possible. You may need to cut the clothing off.
- If they appear to be unconscious, monitor their breathing. If their breathing has stopped, begin CPR if you have training.
- If your elderly parent is conscious and able to swallow, give them warm (not hot) drinks.
- Don’t use an alcohol-based drink (example: whiskey) to warm them.
- Avoid using caffeinated beverages such as coffee or tea.
- Warm, dry compresses can help warm the person. Apply them ONLY to the chest, neck, or groin.
- Use a plastic heat pack like the kind used to warm hands or feet when skiing (click to view on Amazon).
- Or warm up a towel in the dryer
- In a pinch, you can put warm water in a plastic container and hold it against their chest, neck, or groin
- DO NOT apply the warm compresses to their arms or legs – this can force cold blood toward the heart and lungs, causing the person’s core temperature to drop even more.
- DO NOT use heating pads, a heat lamp, or hot water on a hypothermic person. They can damage the skin or cause irregular heart rhythms, which could stop the heart.
- Don’t try to warm your parent in a bath or shower.
What are medications that cause hypothermia? Medications that may contribute to hypothermia include beta blockers, some sedatives, neuroleptics, meperidine, clonidine, some anti-depressants, and general anesthetics.
What is chronic hypothermia? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says chronic hypothermia usually comes from extended exposure to temperatures below 60F (16C). This happens mostly in those with an impaired awareness of cold, reduced mobility, inadequate clothing or heating systems, or who have poor nutrition.