Winter Safety Tips for Older Adults

The winter of 2019 brought subzero temperatures to the much of the country as a cold air mass, known as a polar vortex, swept the area in late January. Temperatures reached 43 degrees below zero and wind chills made the air feel like minus 50 in some parts of the upper Midwest.

These extreme temperatures are dangerous for everyone. However, for older adults, even normal winter temperatures can lead to serious consequences.

Why Winter is More Dangerous for Seniors

As we age and organs and systems begin to decline in function, the body also loses the ability to naturally regulate itself during times of extreme temperatures. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) the normal body temperature of adults age 65 and older already runs lower than younger people. This is why seniors tend to say they are cold even when it is warm outside.

In addition, medical conditions many seniors have makes it harder for them to stay warm in the winter. For example, thyroid problems can make it difficult to maintain a normal body temperature. Diabetes can restrict blood flow and normal blood flow keeps us warm. People living with arthritis often find it difficult to dress in enough layers to stay warm. Furthermore, those with the beginning stages of memory loss can lose their judgement on what type of clothing to wear in the winter. And, they may believe it is safe to go outside when they should stay home. Also, older adults are typically more sedentary and do not generate enough body heat to keep warm.

How to Stay Safe

During the recent polar vortex, the National Weather Service recommended everyone stay home and not venture outside. In fact, many businesses, schools, banks, and retail shops were closed. The U.S. Postal Service also suspended mail service in parts of 10 states during the two coldest days of the air mass. Even during a winter with normal temperatures, seniors should follow these tips to stay warm and safe:

  • Keep the thermostat set between 68 and 70 degrees. A lower setting may not keep you warm enough and can lead to hypothermia–which can happen inside your home. Hypothermia is a condition in which your body temperature gets very low (below 95 Fahrenheit) and can lead to serious health problems, especially for seniors.
  • Dress in 2 to 3 layers of clothing; wear a knit hat at home during the day and when sleeping. Wear slippers in the house with non-skid soles and cover your legs with a blanket.
  • Keep an emergency kit at home and enough food for three days. Have extra water bottles (or jugs filled with water) available in case your home’s pipes freeze.
  • If you do go out, avoid ice and have an emergency kit in your car. Keep you vehicle filled with gasoline and carry water and a few snacks with you.
  • Make sure your mobile phone and other devices are fully charged, in case of power loss.
  • Do not shovel snow or use a snow blower. This can increase heart rate and blood pressure and trigger a heart attack, especially in someone who already has heart disease.


Signs of Hypothermia

These are the signs of hypothermia, according to the National Institutes on Aging, part of the NIH.

  • Cold feet and hands
  • Puffy or swollen face
  • Pale skin
  • Shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
  • Slower than normal speech or slurring words
  • Acting sleepy
  • Being angry or confused


Later signs of hypothermia include:

  • Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
  • Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Blacking out or losing consciousness


Call 911 if you think someone has hypothermia. For more information on winter safety tips for seniors click on the link below.


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