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?
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