Older adults must take precautions to stay safe in cold weather

January feels like a long month. And, whether or not we have broken official cold records this month in Albany County, it sure feels like we have! Despite a brief reprieve from the bone-chilling, below-zero readings, there is still a lot of winter ahead. It’s particularly imperative that older adults take precautions to stay safe in the cold weather.

Why the extra precautions? Older adults can lose body heat faster than younger adults. Age-related changes can make it harder for older adults to be aware of getting cold. This can lead to a serious problem — hypothermia — even before the older person realizes it.

Hypothermia occurs when one’s body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature colder than 95 degrees Fahrenheit can cause many health problems, among them heart attack, kidney problems, or liver damage.

It’s not only being outside that can cause problems; living in cold house also can lead to hypothermia.

You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia. For example, try to stay away from cold places and pay attention to how cold it is where you are.  

The National Institute on Aging offers these additional sensible guidelines.

Keep warm inside

Living in a cold house, apartment, or other building can cause hypothermia. In fact, hypothermia can occur in a group facility — if the rooms are not kept warm enough. If someone you know lives in a group setting, pay attention to the temperature and whether your friend or loved one is dressed warmly enough.

People who are sick may have special problems keeping warm. Therefore, do not set the thermostat too low and dress warmly. Even if the temperature is set between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe.

This is a special problem if you live alone since there is no one else to feel the chilliness of the house or notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia. Keep warm indoors using these tips:

— Set your heat at 68 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms. Keep the basement door closed. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts;

— Make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep your blinds and curtains closed. If you have gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out;

— Dress warmly on cold days even if you are staying in the house. Throw a blanket over your legs. Wear both socks and shoes;

— When you go to sleep, wear long underwear under your pajamas, and use extra covers. Wear a cap or hat to keep body heat in;

— Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your energy;

— Drink alcohol sparingly, if at all. Alcoholic drinks can lead to loss of body heat;

— Think whether you know an older adult who is living alone and be a good neighbor by checking on that individual during cold stretches or snowstorms;

— If a power outage leaves you without heat, contact a relative, friend, or emergency personnel; do not try to wait it out this time of year; and

— You may be tempted to warm your room with a space heater. But, some space heaters are fire hazards and others can cause carbon-monoxide poisoning. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has information on the use of space heaters. Read the following for more information: “Reducing Fire Hazards for Portable Electric Heaters.” You can find it online at www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/heaters.pdf.

Bundle up on windy, cold days

A heavy wind can quickly lower your body temperature. Check the weather forecast for windy and cold days. On those days, try to stay inside or in a warm place. If you have to go out, wear warm clothes, and don’t stay out for any length of time.

Here are other tips:

— Dress for the weather if you have to go out on chilly, cold, or damp days;

— Wear loose layers of clothing. The air between the layers helps to keep you warm;

— Put on a hat and scarf. You lose a lot of body heat when your head and neck are uncovered; and

— Wear a waterproof coat or jacket if it’s snowy.

Illness, medicines, and cold weather

Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm. Diabetes, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, and arthritis are problems that can make it harder for older adults to stay warm. Talk with your doctor about your health problems and how to prevent hypothermia.

Medications and inactivity also can affect body heat. Here are some topics to talk about with your doctor to stay safe in cold weather:

— Ask your doctor about signs of hypothermia;

— Talk to your doctor about any health problems and medications that can make hypothermia a special problem for you. Your doctor can help you find ways to prevent hypothermia; and

— Ask about safe ways to stay active even when it’s cold outside.

Warning signs

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia. Look for clues. Is the house very cold? Is the person not dressed for cold weather? Is the person speaking more slowly than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance?

Early signs of hypothermia include cold feet and hands, puffy or swollen face, pale skin and shivering. Also, the person may have slower than normal speech or slurring and act sleepy, angry, or confused.

Later signs of hypothermia include slow and clumsy movement, stiffness, slow heartbeat, shallow breathing, and losing consciousness.

Call 9-1-1 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia. After you call 9-1-1, move the person to a warmer place and wrap him or her in blankets or coats — whatever is handy, until help arrives.

Heating bills

If you are having a hard time paying your heating bills, there are some resources that might help. Contact the National Energy Assistance Referral service at 1-866-674-6327 (toll-free; TTY, 1-866-367-6228) or email to get information about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

In Albany County, call New York Connects at 518-447-7177 for low-income energy assistance information.


Community Caregivers Inc. is a not for profit organization that provides non-medical services including transportation and caregiver support at no charge to residents of Guilderland, Bethlehem, Altamont, New  Scotland, Berne, Knox, and the city of Albany through a strong volunteer pool of dedicated individuals with a desire to assist their neighbors.

Our funding is derived in part from the Albany County Department for Aging, the New York State Office for the Aging, and the United States Administration on Aging. To find out more about our services, as well as volunteer opportunities, please visit www.communitycaregivers.org or call us at (518) 456-2898.

Editor’s note: Linda Miller is the Outreach and Education coordinator for Community Caregivers.