Senior Health

12/10/2021 | By Kari Smith

The bone-chilling season of winter is upon us. Cold, windy weather can be miserable for anyone, but as people age, cold poses greater risks. Their bodies lose heat faster, and circulation issues may prevent them from realizing how cold they actually are. In addition, those with medical conditions such as thyroid deficiencies, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and arthritis may have additional challenges with cold. People with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or memory issues may go outside without proper clothing if unsupervised. We offer these cold weather safety tips for seniors, to keep them safe and comfortable.

Cold weather safety tips for seniors

Staying warm indoors

Hypothermia happens in the ice and snow, right? Hypothermia can also occur from just being outside in the cold – or even in a very cold indoor space. Although it may seem like obvious advice, it is as important to stay warm inside as it is outside.

1. Heating

  • Many experts recommend that older adults keep the thermostat set to 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or slightly warmer, during cold weather.
  • If heating costs are a challenge, check with your utility company or national programs such as National Energy Assistance Referral for assistance for those experiencing financial hardship. In some cases, local churches or charitable organizations may also be able to help temporarily.
  • To further reduce heating costs, use insulated thermal shades on windows, and keep them closed when possible. If drafts are escaping from the bottom of a window or door, place a folded blanket or rolled towel in front of it or add weatherstripping.
  • If you do not use a room (such as an office or guest bedroom), close the heat vents and keep the doors closed. Magnetic vent covers may also further block drafts.
  • Avoid using a space heater as supplemental heat, as they are fire hazards. Propane heaters also emit carbon monoxide poisoning, which is colorless and odorless – and can be fatal. If you must use one, be sure to install a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Other cold weather safety tips for seniors at home include
  • Use a humidifier to counter the effects of dry air.
  • Scatter houseplants around to help clean the air.
  • Make sure that the furnace won’t let you down – get a check-up early in the season and change filters regularly.

2. Dress the part

  • During cold months, wear warm clothing, even at home, including thick socks and non-slip slippers or shoes. Heat can escape your body quickly through your feet, especially on hard floors such as tile, laminate, or wood. Choose clothing made with toasty but breathable materials such as wool or flannel.
  • Dress in light layers, so you can move around comfortably and remove a layer if you begin to get warm.
  • Keep a warm throw or blanket by your favorite chair or sofa for an extra touch of warmth.
  • Although you may not prefer to wear a hat in the house, it will help to keep your head warm – which will help keep the rest of you warm. A hooded sweatshirt can provide additional warmth, making it easy to adjust head coverage as needed.

Related: 6 Tips for Managing Arthritis Pain in the Winter

3. Sleep warm

Invest in a down comforter and cozy flannel sheets. If using an electric blanket, use on higher settings to heat your bed before lying down, but be sure to lower the temperature or turn it off before sleeping, especially if you suffer from issues with temperature regulation.
Sleep in thermal or flannel pajamas, socks, and a nightcap.

4. Eat and drink well

This hardly seems to fit an article on cold weather safety tips for seniors. However, people who are underweight may not have enough body fat to help them stay warm. So eat healthy meals and take extra caution to not skip meals. In addition,

  • Drink warm drinks throughout the day to help you warm up. Be sure that warm drinks in the evening or before bed are decaffeinated.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated, or use a humidifier if your skin feels very dry or begins to crack.

5. Plan for energy outages

If you do not have supplemental heat, have a plan to stay with family or a friend in case of a power outage – do not try to wait it out in a cold house when the temperature drops below 65° F.

Staying warm outdoors

Although a brisk, cool day can quite literally be a breath of fresh air, it may be dangerous to spend a lot of time outdoors in freezing temperatures, damp cold, or heavy winds – especially if you have issues with temperature regulation. However, it is sometimes necessary – and mentally therapeutic – to go outside to walk a dog, bring in mail or packages, or go to the grocery store or pharmacy.

1. Dress the part

  • As mentioned for indoors, cold escapes through your extremities. Wear a warm hat, gloves, socks, and shoes or boots when going outside.
  • Even if you feel like you may not get that cold, dress in loose layers so that you can remove layers when you feel too warm. This also keeps you from getting chilled if you sweat.
  • If the weather is damp, be sure to wear waterproof outerwear and boots. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible.
  • Dress for warmth over fashion. Choose a reliable vendor for warm clothing, such as sports-focused companies that specialize in beating outdoor conditions. Examples include Columbia (check out their omni-heat infinity line), The North Face, and Patagonia. And their gear can be pretty attractive, too!
  • Icy conditions also pose a risk during winter weather. If you go outside, even to fetch the paper, wear non-slip shoes or boots or strap on a product like Kahtoola NANOspikes that easily add traction to any footwear.

2. Be aware of hypothermia and its effects

Early signs may be more obvious such as cold hands and feet and shivering, or they may be less obvious – such as slower speech and difficulty maintaining balance.

  • Ask for help if you experience any of these symptoms.
  • If possible, ask for assistance with cold-weather tasks such as shoveling snow from sidewalks, removing ice and snow from a car, or even driving in the ice and snow.

Related: How to Help Your Loved Ones Avoid Seasonal Depression

There’s nothing like a fresh snowfall, and it is usually a welcome break from the dreariness of winter. Enjoy that winter wonderland when possible, but above all, stay safe.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith