“Winter is coming.” This phrase has been popularized by the TV series Game of Thrones, and it warns of the cold season when the villains of the story, the White Walkers, destroy lives and villages.
Having older people under your care can feel the same. While winter can be beautiful and nostalgic, the extreme cold can negatively affect elderly clients in many ways. The most serious consequence of exposure to cold is hypothermia, wherein the body temperature drops so low it causes injury to the body, or even death. Here is a simple refresher of why older people need to be protected from low temperatures:
1. The elderly can have more difficulty feeling the heat or cold in the environment. They might be freezing but are not aware of it.
2. Their body cannot properly control body temperature, so during winter the body cannot readily get warm.
3. The elderly with chronic diseases and those taking certain medications tend to be more affected by a cold environment.
4. Many elderly people are malnourished or dehydrated, and they can easily become sick because of the cold.
5. If they are inactive at home, they may not be dressed properly when they go outdoors.
6. Older people who have dementia may be more confused and wander, or walk aimlessly out of their home.
The dangers of winter for the elderly population are very real, so caregivers must prepare early and make sure that their clients are safe and have everything they need during harsh, colder months. Following are some helpful tips for caring for elderly people during winter:
1. Keep them indoors as much as possible.
2. Maintain a comfortable room temperature at 68-75° Fahrenheit (20-24° Celsius).
3. Close all windows and doors to avoid drafts.
4. Dress clients warmly in layers, while making sure that they can still move around comfortably.
5. In the morning, upon waking, they may need additional layers of clothing, as the body easily feels cold after a night’s rest.
6. At night, dress clients warmly and provide a warm blanket for them to use. Put socks on them, too.
7. Maintain proper nutrition and hydration. Soups and warm drinks can help keep clients warm.
8. Ensure that heaters have been checked recently and are working properly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, which can lead to death. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, poisonous gas that comes from burning fuel in engines, furnaces, and heaters.
9. When it is necessary to go outdoors, help clients put on a warm coat, wool clothes and socks, gloves, a hat, scarves, and ear muffs. If the cold is extreme, cover all exposed skin and use a scarf to cover their face.
10. Keep them actively moving, because being active keeps the body warmer.
11. Discourage them from consuming alcohol or drinks that have caffeine, because these drinks decrease circulation in the hands and feet.
12. If an elderly client appears cold, confused, has bluish fingers, and is less responsive, seek medical assistance immediately.
Hypothermia is a very dangerous consequence of exposure to low temperatures. The elderly population is especially at risk for hypothermia. When caregivers provide care during cold months, they must consistently work with the healthcare team to ensure that an older client is kept safe and warm.
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