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Thursday, 12 December 2013

Helping Out Elders in Winter

Although we are finally heading back into the low 40s Farenheit today, like much of the United States for the past week or 10 days, my area has suffered frigid, below freezing weather 24/7. Unusual for northwest Oregon.

Perhaps I am more tuned to elders and cold weather because my 92-year-old grandmother, many years ago, froze to death in her home. (I wrote about that four years ago in The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman.)

I always think about how Grandma Hazel's life ended during arctic weather spells. Although hers was a special case undoubtedly involving some degree of cognitive disability, winter is more treacherous for all elders than it is for younger adults.

Hypothermia (drop in body temperature) can happen more easily in old age. It causes mental confusion, slurred speech, stiffness in arms or legs, slow body movement, irregular heart beat and death.

Body temperature below 96 degrees (98.6 is the average normal) is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment.

In old age, we do not always feel temperature changes as easily as when we were younger so it's harder to know when you're getting too cold. I've noticed this in myself and am still surprised occasionally that I don't feel as cold as I did two or three decades ago when I could be heard bitching about being out in winter weather.

Right now, I'm dreading next month's power bill. This place is heated with electricity and as I noted, it's not been this cold for this long during any of the previous three winters I've lived here so I've turned the heat on much more frequently and for longer than usual over the past 10 days.

I will be able to pay the bill, but I suspect I'm not going to be happy about it and we should all be aware of low-income friends and neighbors who might not turn up the heat enough to be safe And, of course, they would never mention it. Inside temperatures should not be set below 68-70 degrees during the day in cold weather.

If you or an elder you know uses a space heater for additional warmth, the National Institute on Aging supplies this safety checklist:

  • Make sure your space heater has been approved by a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Choose the right size heater for the space you are heating.
  • Put the heater on a flat, level surface that will not burn.
  • Keep children and pets away from the heating element.
  • Keep things that can catch fire like paint, clothing, bedding, curtains and papers away from the heating element.
  • If your heater has a flame, keep a window open at least one-inch and doors open to the rest of your home for good air flow.
  • Turn the heater off when you leave the room or go to bed.
  • Make sure your smoke alarms are working.
  • Put a carbon monoxide detector near where people sleep.
  • Keep an approved fire extinguisher nearby.

I would add that you should never connect a space to the wall outlet using an extension cord.

Some other important cold-weather information:

Drink alcohol sparingly or not at all – it encourages loss of body heat.

Try not to go out on the coldest, windiest days. If you must, wear several layers of loose clothing, nothing tight, that will trap and hold in body heat. Don't ever forget hat and gloves.

Ask your physician if any medications you take can affect body temperature. According to several resources, some drugs used to treat anxiety, depression and nausea can increase risk of accidental hypothermia as can some over-the-counter cold remedies.

Prepare for power outages with flashlights, additional batteries or use crank-powered flashlight, battery- or crank-operated radio, a corded phone is a help as cell towers may be inoperable and learn where your community's warming shelters are.

In addition, keep a good supply of canned food on hand because during prolonged power outages food in refrigerators and freezers can spoil.

(Here's a personal tip on that: during one power outage when I lived in Maine, I knew the temperature wasn't going to be above about 20 degrees for coming week so I just moved all the frozen food to the back deck.)

We have discussed here many time the terrible debilitating effects on elders of falls and one-third of us fall down every year. So be extra careful on snowy and icy walkways – stay in if at all possible. Footwear should have good traction, non-skid soles. If you use a cane or walker, make sure the rubber tips are not worn down.

When temperatures are below freezing and particularly during power outages when you are without heating, leave one or two water taps open and dripping to help prevent frozen pipes.

It is a kindness to check on elder friends and neighbors during cold snaps. Are they warm enough? Do they need their walk- and driveways shoveled? If they do not drive, do they need a lift to the grocery store and back?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has even more tips - one for winter emergency preparedness and another with winter safety and health information.

Whew. When you've done all that, cozy up to your heat source, sit back and Let It Snow like Frank Sinatra sings.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Season's Greeting

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Thank you for Frank Sinatra's "Let It Snow". It's an upbeat song that makes you feel good. The pictures were gorgeous, but they made me pull my sweater around me tighter - all that snow!!

It's odd, but I feel the cold much more in my old age and I most assuredly know when I am getting cold, contrary to what you say is normal. I have always been different I guess so this is not surprising. ;-)

I reread your grandmother's story just now. I'm very touched by that. At the very worst of my daughters addictions, she was a hoarder. I remember it well.

Thank you for being here and sharing the richness of your life with others. Nope, tho you get Crabby some days, dementia hasn't set in yet.

Temperatures here are in the 40's at night and up to 70 in the daytime. We are trying 65 F this first year we have heat, and we will see how it goes. Always we have had space heaters at the end of extension cords. LOL Without doing that, we had no electricity. Many old folks in older still homes have to do this to keep warm.

Most likely you would not expect S.E. New Mexico to be a below freezing area! Well, this winter it is!

Really really cold weather is
even colder in an RV which has
very thin walls and very little if any insulation. In the park where I live, we cannot enclose the area under the rig to the ground as we must be able to "hitch up and head out" quickly.

The furnace in my rig runs on propane, a commodity that is far more expensive than electricity in this area. There are 3 electric heaters running full blast 24/7 for the past 12 days so far of the very cold "spell." The furnace is set at 75.

Staying inside is what I have been doing, and will continue to do, as long as the really cold weather lasts! The exception of course, is when my Clyde cat and I need food!

I do not travel with my RV anymore so that is not an option! Where would I go if
I would... where it might be warmer??? Yes, Quartzsite, AZ.

Our lowest lows have been in the teens and we have had ice and snow covering our open high desert landscape, our RV's, cars and trucks!

Yes, this is unusual weather for the extreme S.E. NM area!


We hovered around zero for a week here (Denver). I had to turn the thermostat up a few more degrees to be comfortable during the day, and layer on more clothes and put on my Uggs.

No space heaters. We've had several near tragedies in the family because of them (melting extension cords, blown fuses, fire started when cat knocked blanket onto heater). I stayed in, kept the cabinet doors open and the faucets dripping. Refilled portable humidifiers for several days until I realized I was losing ground and it was all just turning to ice on the windows anyway.

Can't be too careful. An elderly man died here this week when he went outside, got confused, and couldn't get back into either his home or his car.

Stay warm and safe everyone!

I'm with Darlene again, LOL. I guess it's getting older that does it, but this year as never before, I have been very sensitive to the cold. I've had to turn up the thermostat during the day & keep it a little higher at nite. Even my feet stay cold, so as a friend suggested I'm "double socking" especially with the wool blend socks I have. And a sweater or fleece shirt at all times. And the worst is PJs...........flannel no less at nite. Somethings about aging stink! :) We were 8 degrees this morning & have been below freezing well over a week now. BRRRRRRR! Dee

I had never seen the story about your grandmother Hazel. It's staggering where the mind and conditions sometimes lead us. So many stories like hers are rarely shared, or only whispered about, but I think, like many other things that families keep hidden, they may be more common than we care to admit. A few years ago there was a house just a couple blocks from us that the owner had apparently abandoned when he could not longer manage any kind of a life with the 80+ cats that had accumulated. Animals, garbage, junk or stuff that may be valuable or useful, unmanaged, can lead to trouble. I'm fighting this right now with books. They are good books, not just anything bound between two covers, but your grandmother's story drives home the point that I need to be more diligent. And it's really cold here, too. Good for reading though.

We have electric heat, too, Ronni, and are not accustomed to such cold temperatures for so long. Just got my bill, and it's $100 more than last month's was, but I have been happy to wake up a cold bedroom in the morning and walk into a warm apartment everywhere else. It's was worth it for what it gave us.

I haven't read the story, but I'm off to do that now. And then listen to Sinatra. Thanks for being YOU, Ronni.

I'm in St Paul, too. And yes, it's bloody cold. But thank goodness, I'm in an apartment. Don't have to worry about heating bills. Just put on another layer when it gets a little chilly.

I've lived in the Midwest all my life and have NEVER gotten used to winter.

Here's a toast to us...the rugged elders.

I do feel so for those who suffer from the cold - Hunky Husband's being among them. We live in a well-insulated house, so the (natural gas) furnace is not often active, even during the single-digit, 45-mph-wind days. (It almost never comes on at night, when the thermostat is turned down.) Never having suffered from the cold, I have added a 3rd sheet over me at night - and a raggedy, very light quilt on the lower half of my bed. Of course, not suffering from the cold, I do suffer from the heat of summer - when Hunky Husband and others are basking. We all differ!

I hadn't seen the story about your grandmother before. It was very sad, but I'm so glad you had your brother to help both physically and mentally. It's good to have somebody to talk to that knows your history.

We are fortunately in good health. My husband is 68 and we have kept our heat at 59 degrees for years, 58 at night. Even on the coldest days here in WI, we are outside at least part of every day. I wouldnt agree with the 68 recommendation. You just need to wear appropriate clothing.

And don't forget to keep a manual can opener and matches if you have a gas stove that can be lit by hand. Or choose some non-canned foods like crackers, peanut butter, dried fruit, dried soups, etc. We were without power for much of a week in 2012, and it's a very different approach to managing food when you lack a fridge, especially when it comes to food safety.

This is good information for people to know about, especially when the nation is having so many winter storms.

I'm sorry about your grandmother. It's difficult when the elderly want to live in their homes but should be getting more help.

My mom had a massive heart attack. The only thing that saved her was my daughter was visiting and called 9-1-1.


Hi Ronni,

Thanks again for your article on winter hazards for the elderly.

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