Winter can be a difficult time for many seniors, and here in Pennsylvania, we get the gamut of winter weather with rain, sleet, snow, ice, and frigid winds. This winter has seen much of the country under record low temperatures and buried in snow. During harsh winter weather, it is very important for older adults to be aware of the increased risk of hypothermia for seniors as well as know how to avoid the dangers associated with cold weather. Here are some of the ways that hypothermia can place unsuspecting seniors in danger and preventative measures that can be taken to keep them safe.
Hypothermia 101- What It Is And What Causes It
Hypo= less than normal and thermia= state of heat, so hypo+thermia= less than normal state of heat, or below normal temperature. When your body loses heat at a faster rate than heat can be produced it causes your body temperature to fall dangerously low creating the medical emergency of hypothermia. The average normal body temperature is about 98.6°F. When someone’s body temperature falls below 95°F hypothermia occurs. With the body temperature so low your body can’t work as it should. Everything slows down putting a strain on your heart, nervous system, and other organs. If hypothermia is left untreated or becomes too severe it will cause respiratory and cardiac failure and ultimately death. It really is that serious.
You might think that being outside in the cold is the only way hypothermia can occur, but it can also happen inside a very cold house. Seniors typically have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature and staying warm, so if you add in side effects of medications that affect temperature or circulation, or an acute illness and it can make it even hard for an older person to maintain the proper body temperature, even in a room where everyone else is comfortable.
Conditions such as hypothyroidism can contribute to the risk of hypothermia by causing a deficiency of the thyroid hormone that helps regulate your body temperature. Diabetes, blood pressure medications, venous insufficiency, and cardiovascular disease can hinder normal blood flow. Conditions that hinder mobility like arthritis and Parkinson’s disease can prevent seniors from being able to get out of the cold, put on more layers of clothing or properly cover themselves with blankets. Memory and cognitive issues can interfere with reasoning causing seniors to put themselves at risk by wearing clothing that is not well suited to the weather without even realizing it.
With all of these added risk factors, seniors and their caregivers must take precautions to prevent hypothermia from happening, know how to recognize the early signs, and learn how to treat hypothermia in an emergency situation and when to get medical help.
The Warning Signs Of Hypothermia
Any sign that a senior gives that their body temperature may be dropping below normal needs to be taken seriously and tended to immediately as hypothermia can progress very quickly in an older adult. Knowing the early warning signs and symptoms is critical. Shivering and chattering teeth are probably the most obvious and often the first signs. Shivering is caused by your body creating the rapid contraction of muscles in an effort to produce more heat. If you notice a senior starting to shiver, take steps to help warm them up immediately. Here are some other signs that they may be experiencing a low body temperature.
- Slow or slurred speech
- Low energy
- Change of mental status- confusion, sudden memory loss, or irritability
- Cold, red skin or pale waxy skin
Call 911 immediately-
- Uncontrollable, jerky movements
- Weak or slow pulse
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Loss of consciousness
One of the most difficult things about hypothermia is that the person experiencing it typically is unaware of it because the symptoms set in and worsen gradually. The confusion that can occur with hypothermia further hinders the sufferer’s ability to recognize that something is wrong. So a senior experiencing hypothermia may not even realize that they are in danger and may not take any steps at all to get themselves warm. This is why prevention is of utmost importance in keeping seniors safe from the genuine dangers of hypothermia.
First Aid For Hypothermia
If you notice the warning signs of hypothermia soon enough the person may just need to be warmed up with a warm drink and some blankets, but if symptoms beyond being a bit cold and shivery have developed there could be more going on that you can’t see such as cardiac arrhythmias. Call for emergency medical help right away. While you are waiting the person should immediately be moved somewhere warmer if possible. Be gentle as jarring movements can trigger cardiac arrest. Cover the person with warm blankets and give them something warm to drink if they are alert and able to swallow. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Do not attempt to warm them with a bath, by rubbing extremities, or with a heating pad.
As a friend, family member, or caregiver you can help the seniors in your life be safe in cold weather by making sure they have adequate heat in their home, ensuring that they have plenty of warm clothing and blankets readily available that they can easily put on themselves, making sure they stay well hydrated, and check on them often, watching for signs of hypothermia.
At Ashbridge Manor Senior Living we pride ourselves on creating a safe environment that enables seniors to lead a fulfilling, socially active, and independent lifestyle. When it’s time to transition to a senior living facility, contact our professional staff members and we can help make it easy. You can find us at 971 E. Lancaster Avenue in Downingtown, PA, call 610.269.8800, or contact us online for more information. Ask us about our move-in special!