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Tips On How To Prevent Hypothermia In The Elderly

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As we get closer to the winter of 2021, I am reminded of when my dad would keep the thermostat in his apartment set at 72 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 tend to lose body heat faster as they age. This made me worry about him getting hypothermia in the winter.

So, I did some research and found 5 tips on hypothermia prevention in the elderly:

  • Set home temperature to at least 68 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Inside the home: wear socks, slippers, a warm hat or scarf, and cover up with a warm blanket.
  • Outside: wear layers of loose clothing plus long underwear. Use both a hat and a neck scarf, plus gloves and heavy socks.
  • Limit exposure to cold temperatures.
  • Check on older people in cold weather. Move them to a heated place if the power goes out.

What Causes Hypothermia In The Elderly?

Hypothermia is defined as when a person’s body loses heat faster than it can produce heat (see the following quote from the Mayo Clinic). This happens when the core body temperature drops to around 95 degrees (normal is about 98.6).

It can lead to health problems, such as kidney problems, heart attacks, and liver damage. Severe hypothermia requires medical help as it can be life-threatening.

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C). Hypothermia (hi-poe-THUR-me-uh) occurs as your body temperature falls below 95 F (35 C).

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 warm 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 that he was safe in the winter time.

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:

What Is The Ideal Room Temperature For The Elderly?

The “ideal” indoor temperatures for an elderly person will vary from person to person (of course).  But generally speaking, 68F is considered to be a good temperature for most senior adults.

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 on his heating bills.

The National Institute on Aging recommends setting indoor heat to “at least 68 – 70 degrees” during the winter months.

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 increase the risk of hypothermia in seniors.

Dad’s apartment 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.

According to Happy DIY Home, another way to stop heat loss is to “Install heat-saving thresholds under the doors or use plastic window coverings on windows that are going unused to help eliminate drafts and keep your heat indoors.” They further suggest that, “It is also a good idea to install insulation on your attic door to trap heat downstairs. “

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.

How Does Cold Weather Affect The Elderly?

Older adults can lose body heat fast—faster than when they were young. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what’s happening.

National Institute On Aging

There are certainly specific reasons as to why older adults feel colder…

  • Issues with decreased circulation
  • Thinner fat layers under the skin
  • Slower metabolic responses

These are very common reasons as to why elderly adults tend to feel cold (even when the temperature outside is 85 degrees!)

Winter Wear For Senior Citizens

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 had an electric blanket, but electric blankets can be dangerous for the elderly (especially one as old as his was – probably older than me!), so I took the blanket out of his apartment so he wouldn’t use it by accident. NOTE: A heating pad can be dangerous for seniors,too.

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 being out in a cold environment. He had shoveled snow, put up Christmas lights, and done outdoor activities during the winter all his life. But, this also meant he didn’t think about how long he stayed outside on cold days.

If family members are trying to prevent hypothermia in a senior, they need to limit the person’s exposure to the elements. For example, wet clothing makes body temperature drop faster, so if Dad got wet while shoveling snow, he would be at a higher risk of hypothermia. Sweating because of the exertion also contributes to hypothermia.

Hypothermia Temperature Chart

Wind chills cool the body’s internal temperature. This chart from the National Weather Service shows the effect of wind on outside temperatures:

How to Prevent Hypothermia in the Eldery

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 symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • slurred or slowed speech
  • drowsiness
  • clumsiness
  • moving slower than normal

Because signs of hypothermia show up 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 beverages (but no 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 packs like these. They are often used to warm hands or feet when skiing.
    • 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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