NORMAN — With frigid temperatures gripping Oklahoma during the winter months, family members, neighbors and friends need to keep older residents on their To-Do list. Geriatric experts at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center said most adults can deal with frigid temperatures, but the elderly have difficulty adjusting to cold snaps.
“As we mature beyond middle age, the body’s means of compensating for changes in the environment is less efficient than when we were in our 20s and 30s,” said Barbara J. Holtzclaw, Ph.D., an expert on thermoregulatory response with the Reynolds Center on Geriatric Nursing Excellence at the OU College of Nursing.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypothermia causes about 600 deaths every year in the Unites States. About half of those deaths occur in people age 65 and older.
“When you look at people well beyond the age of 65, particularly those who have illnesses or have become frail, their ability to conserve heat by constricting surface blood vessels and generating body heat by shivering may be markedly diminished,” she said.
Appropriate footwear and hand coverage is critical if the elderly venture out in the cold because their toes and fingers can easily suffer frostbite. Geriatricians said about 30 percent of individuals age 65 and older have a condition known as idiopathic peripheral neuropathy. In other words, they have problems with sensation in their hands and feet that they might not be aware of, which again puts them at risk.
Here are a few tips to help elderly adults cope with extreme cold weather:
Make Sure Heating System is On
Extreme cold snaps are not the time to save money on the gas bill. Make sure the heat is on and the thermostat is turned up.
“We need to absolutely make sure they haven’t tried to save on money for heating by turning the thermostat really low or not even using the heat and using a space heater or something like that,” Holtzclaw said. “Space heaters are dangerous because of the potential for getting burned.”
Bundle Up With Blankets; Layers
Make sure your older loved one has plenty of warm blankets and clothing. Dressing in layers is very important. The layers help retain heat. They also help the body adjust to differences in temperature throughout the home.
Limit Activities Outside
Extreme cold weather is not the time for adults older than age 65 to get outside and perform strenuous activities. Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. Older bodies are already working hard to stay warm, so it’s a good idea not to overdo it.
It would be good for someone to make arrangements to shovel the walk or take care of other outdoor activities, so the elderly loved one does not feel compelled to go out and do these chores. Hypothermia also is a real risk for the elderly in extreme cold.
Mild hypothermia may cause confusion and poor judgment about their condition; moderate hypothermia can lead to loss of consciousness, inability to shiver and irregular cardiac rhythm; and severe hypothermia can progress through unconsciousness, ventricular fibrillation, cardiac arrest and death.
Medicines also can cause hypothermia. These medicines include the phenothiazines, psychotropic drugs and older drugs such as haloperidol, lithium, the benzodiazepines and tricyclicantidepressants. Anticonvulsant valproic acid, barbiturates and some anti-infective drugs also are known to cause hypothermia.
Regularly Check on Elderly
Try to plan a quick phone call first thing in the morning to check on older loved ones to make sure they are aware of the frigid temperature, and to make sure they are taking the proper precautions. Then, continually check on them from time-to-time throughout the day to make sure they are doing okay.
The telephone call gives you the opportunity to encourage them not to go outdoors or tackle any activities such as clearing walks or shoveling snow that could be dangerous.
“An older family member with cognitive decline or lack of supervision contributes to incidences of elderly persons being accidentally locked out of their residence, becoming lost while out on a walk or having their heat or electricity turned off for failing to pay their bills,” Holtzclaw said. “At highest risk is the older person with cognitive impairment who is homeless and without shelter.”