Tips for Keeping Yourself and Loved Ones Safe, Secure and Warm During the Cold Weather Months
The winter months can be a difficult and dangerous time for anyone living in an area of the country where temperatures regularly fall below freezing. The frail and elderly are especially susceptible to such winter hazards as icy streets, exposure to cold, and inadequate home heating. If you or someone you know is over age 65 or in some way disabled and living alone, it is important to safeguard against the most common causes of cold weather death and injury as outlined in this article.
Preparing for the Cold and for Weather Emergencies
There are several important ways you can prepare for winter emergencies BEFORE the cold weather hits:
- Have your heating system checked annually for possible problems. If your furnace breaks down during a cold spell, temperatures in your home could plummet into the danger zone within hours. Keep in mind that during peak breakdown times it may be days before repairs are made.
- Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms and on all floors of your home - MAKE SURE THEY’RE WORKING. Test them monthly and change batteries at least once a year. In the event of a gas leak, faulty heater or winter fire, they could save your life!
- Make sure you have plenty of warm blankets, candles and working flashlights on hand in the event of a winter power outage that could leave you without heat or electricity.
- If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, keep a supply of dry firewood on hand, in case of a furnace breakdown or power blackout. Have your chimney cleaned annually to prevent carbon monoxide buildup.
- Keep an emergency supply of canned goods and necessities on hand in case a sudden winter storm leaves you unable to venture out to the store.
- Keep a battery-powered portable radio on hand for weather reports and other emergency news in the event of a power outage. In case power lines are disabled, it is also advisable to have a cell phone for emergency use.
- Pre-arrange for someone to check on you in the event of a weather emergency.
Watch Your Step!
Falling is one of the biggest health hazards seniors face in the winter. Consequently, icy buildup on steps or walkways can be an invitation to disaster. When venturing out on freezing days, make sure to wear sturdy, low-heeled shoes with non-skid rubber soles. Although heavy, thick-soled shoes are often recommended for walking in snow, seniors with poor circulation may actually have better traction with thin-soled shoes because they provide better contact with the ground.
Following a winter snowfall, stay clear of unshoveled sidewalks and hilly terrain. If you’re unsure of whether or not a sidewalk is slippery, proceed cautiously, walking with toes pointed outward, taking short, flat steps. Remove shoes immediately upon entering your home to avoid indoor falls caused by slippery soles.
Avoiding Fatal Mistakes that Could Cause Home Fires
Unfortunately, home fires are one of the most common causes of winter fatalities among seniors. Improper use of wood burning stoves, fireplaces, space heaters and other heating devices can result in fires that can consume your home in just minutes. Here are some fire safety tips to follow when heating your home:
- Keep clothing, curtains and blankets away from space heaters
- Never smoke in bed or when you’re drowsy
- Never use kerosene heaters or stoves to heat your home
- Make sure all smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order throughout your home
Preparing for Weather Emergencies
In case of a snow storm, taking some simple precautions can save you time and worry later.
- Make sure you have enough non-perishable foods and bottled water to get you through several days.
- Stock up on any medications you may need ahead of time.
- If you have home health care service, plan ahead with your agency for emergency procedures.
- Arrange for someone to check on you in the event of a weather emergency.
- Make sure you have a cell phone and a batter powered radio on hand, in case of power loss.
- Make sure you have enough candles in case of a power loss, and check your flashlights to make sure they’re in working order. If necessary, buy extra batteries.
Keeping Our Senior Neighbors Safe in Extreme Weather
When the cold weather strikes, our elderly and disabled neighbors may need extra help. Offer your phone number for emergency calls, and check on elderly loved ones and friends regularly to make sure they’re alright. If possible, arrange for someone to shovel and de-ice their walkways and steps.
During inclement weather, see if they need transportation to and from medical appointments or to the grocery store. Make sure they have emergency supplies on hand, as noted in the checklist above. If loved ones are cognitively or physically disabled, arrange for someone to stay with them during a weather emergency.
Guarding Against Hypothermia
Hypothermia is classified as a drop in body temperature below 96 degrees, and can be extremely dangerous if not detected early. Medical experts believe certain conditions such as stroke, severe arthritis and Parkinson’s disease can block the body’s response to cold, as can some medications. This makes seniors particularly susceptible to accidental hypothermia.
To guard against the potentially devastating consequences of hypothermia, follow these simple guidelines:
- Try to limit your time outdoors, especially if you are in a high-risk group.
- If you are forced to be outside during cold weather, wear warm, layered clothing made of natural fibers. Wear a hat, warm socks and gloves to reduce heat loss.
- Stay indoors on windy days. Even if the temperature appears to be moderate, wind chill can substantially increase your risk of hypothermia.
- Indoors, keep your thermostat set at a comfortable level. On cold days, augment your home heating by using your fireplace or wood burning stove to add heat. Wear warm clothing, and use enough blankets at night to keep warm while sleeping.
- Choose hot, nourishing meals and drink warm beverages to keep your body temperature up.
Remember, even mildly cool temperatures of 60- 65 degrees can cause a dangerous drop in internal body temperature, which can be deadly if not treated promptly and properly.
What Are the Warning Signs of Hypothermia?
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Confusion, disorientation, drowsiness
- Stiff muscles
- Slurred speech
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Slow, irregular heartbeat
- Weak pulse
- Stumbling and loss of coordination
If you suspect someone may be suffering from hypothermia, keep the person dry and warm with blankets. DO NOT rub limbs to warm them. Encourage them to drink hot beverages that are free of caffeine or alcohol. The home remedy of a “hot toddy” may actually do more harm than good. Above all, seek medical attention immediately.
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