Family Living Focus: Baby, it’s cold outside: Keep safe in winter

In many areas of the country including Minnesota, cold weather safety is forgotten until that time of year rolls around again. When caring for those with disabilities and seniors, caregivers must take some simple precautions to ensure a loved one’s safety this winter season.

Temperature control

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 600 Americans die each year from hypothermia, half of whom are older than age 65. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops from the normal 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees or below. Seniors and those with disabilities are at a greater risk if conditions such as arthritis and a variety of mediations diminish their response to cold temperatures.

Layering clothing is not just a fashion trend; it serves a purpose, especially for those susceptible to dangerous temperatures and if a home is prone to drafts. Use lighter layers of clothes nearest the body and make them easily removable and also a non-hassle to put back on. Layers trap warm air between each layer, keeping the body warmer.

When outside, keep a loved one’s exposed skin covered, including head, face, ears, hands and feet. A couple things to remember: use mittens versus gloves, since they allow the fingers to touch and generate heat. Next, make sure a loved one’s clothes are loose fitting, since tight clothes keep blood from flowing and minimize the production of body heat. Proper footwear is also something a caregiver should examine and ensure it is appropriate for the season.

Maintaining an even, warm house temperature is essential during the cold weather season. A caregiver should make sure the thermostat is easy to read, perhaps with large digital numbers, so a loved one can check it frequently. The National Institute of Health recommends at least 68 to 70 degrees as a standard temperature and says that even mild cold temperatures such as 60 to 65 degrees can cause a hypothermia risk for seniors.

Stay Safe

Many times, cold weather is the cause of power outages. Both darkness and cold are situations a loved one does not want to find themselves in without some preparation and knowledge of what to do.

Many people with disabilities and seniors rely on powered devices for medical care such as oxygen or for mobility. Have emergency numbers easily accessible and an emergency kit with easy-to-use items available at all times. A generator is a great source of backup power. A caregiver should walk their loved one through its use and the emergency plan before such a situation arises.

For many loved ones, travel is hard during the cold winter months. A caregiver can be an advocate by eliminating any unnecessary travel, shopping for their loved one and encouraging family members and friends to visit at the loved one’s home. Take advantage of the nicer, sunny days and don’t push medical appointments that can be put off if the cold is too extreme or snow too deep. Another option for medical appointments is for a caregiver to look into a visiting physician service if travel is too difficult.

A big safety issue in wintertime is falls. A caregiver can help prevent this common injury-causing scenario by keeping sidewalks and door entryways clear. Think of things that might cause a loved one to go outside. The mail? Pets? Appointments?  A caregiver can be available or have someone nearby to assist with these daily tasks while the weather is less-than-desirable.

Don’t worry, be happy

Cabin fever isn’t just for newlyweds taking refuge in a north woods cabin. Many seniors struggle immensely with this season of isolation and Vitamin D deprivation.  Remind a loved one to drink plenty of water, eat well and exercise indoors as much as possible. Many senior-friendly exercise videos are available.

Encourage socialization by inviting friends and family who are able to travel for a visit. “Brain” games such as word and number puzzles and simply reading the daily paper help a loved one maintain a sense of connection during the long winter months.

Keeping warm isn’t the only thing on a caregiver’s to-do list during the cold season. Ensuring a loved one is safe and content are also important and will make for a faster, happier winter for all.

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Information adapted from article by Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer in Today’s Caregiver.com, November 18, 2014 – Issue #767.

If you would like more information on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” contact Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., C.F.C.S. and Professor Emeritus – University of Minnesota at waldn001@umn.edu. Be sure to watch for more Family Living Focus™ information in next week’s paper.

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