The elderly get cold much faster primarily because their bodies simply don’t generate heat as efficiently as they once did. Seniors also tend to lose heat a lot faster. This is because the skin and the layer of fat just under the skin gets thinner as we age and prevents heat retention.
Keeping seniors warm, especially as the coldest months of the year approach, is therefore a challenge but also extremely important. A drop in body temperature affects respiration and the cardiovascular system and can lead to slow and shallow breathing or increased heart rate as the heart works harder to pump blood to the extremities and skin in an effort to keep the body warm.
Extreme heat loss can result in hypothermia which can be fatal. Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops just two degrees (C) lower than what is considered to be normal – from 98.6° F (37° C) to 95° F (35° C). This small drop in temperature can happen very quickly in the elderly who may be unaware that hypothermia has set in.
Fortunately, if you are looking to learn how to keep the elderly warm there are lots of traditional means as well as the latest tech.
1. Layer Clothing
The elderly are generally going to require warmer clothes during the winter and some may even prefer them in the summer when they are indoors. An extra layer like a cardigan or sweater is ideal for providing additional insulation against heat escaping.
If going outdoors, it is recommended to start with a layer of thermal underwear, both tops and bottoms. These are the ideal replacement for the layer of fat and thinned skin that used to provide insulation against heat loss.
You might even consider heated apparel for the elderly. This clothing has built in heating systems, similar to an electric blanket, that are battery powered for use when on the go. You can learn more about these options at Gobi Heat and The Warming Store.
Next, comes warm clothing plus an additional sweater. Lastly, a coat and scarf are essential to prevent the cold from getting in.
2. Heat the Head, Hands And Feet
While the entire body radiates heat, most of our body heat is lost from the head – between 40% and 45% of body heat radiates from the head. Wearing a hat or a beanie is the ideal way to keep the heat from escaping from the head.
We also tend to lose far more heat from our feet. This is because the feet are furthest from the heart and the heart has to work much harder to pump warm blood to the tiny capillaries in the skin on the feet. These little blood vessels expand and contract in reaction to temperature. Warm feet mean wider capillaries and better heat retention. A pair of insulated socks and slippers indoors and warm, insulated winter boots outdoors will help retain heat in the feet. Heated slippers that you can heat up in the microwave might even be necessary.
Although we do not lose much heat through our hands, they are often the most exposed part of our bodies. For the elderly, this means cold hands. A pair of gloves or mittens is the ideal to way to prevent the cold from penetrating the thin skin of the hands while preventing heat loss. You can supplement these with hand warmers too for really cold situations.
Another area where heat is lost is through respiration or breathing. Every time we exhale, a little heat is escaping from our bodies. Wearing a balaclava or other type of face covering is a good way to prevent this heat loss.
Face masks and coverings that have become the norm due to Covid-19 and are also a good way to protect the elderly from contracting the virus. Keep in mind that the elderly are particularly prone to the disease and that being cold can aggravate the symptoms.
4. A Warm Home
Most HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) manufacturers say that the ideal room temperature for the elderly is 69.8° F (21° C). This is the ideal temperature for keeping warm and retaining heat plus it is sufficiently cold to prevent the growth of mold, bacteria and other microorganisms that could be hazardous to the health of the elderly.
However, the temperature setting on the thermostat for the elderly person’s bedroom should be a little higher – around 73.4° F (23° C) at night and especially while sleeping. This is because ambient temperatures usually drop at night and so does the body temperature while we are asleep.
During the day, movement helps the body generate heat which doesn’t happen while we are sleeping and is the main reason for the drop in body temperature. Using the sleep function on an air conditioner or heating system will raise the temperature in the bedroom by between a 1/2 a degree and one degree every hour until it reaches the desired sleeping temperature of 73.4° F.
Space heaters are not recommended for the elderly while sleeping especially. These dry the air out further contributing to dry skin, nasal passages and mouth. Underfloor heating is also not recommended as this can negatively impact blood circulation and result in swollen and sore feet, ankles and lower legs.
Humidity is another important factor in keeping a home warmer and creating a healthier living environment for seniors. Heating and ventilation systems often dry the air out which not only makes it colder but also results in dried skin, mouth and nose.
A humidifier used in combination with a heating or ventilation system will replace moisture in the air. Alternatively, invest in an air conditioner or ventilation system that has an environmental humidity feature that can be set to compensate for the loss of moisture in the air.
5. Fill In The Gaps
Proper insulation is key to keeping the cold out and the warm in during winter. As heat rises, cold air is drawn into the home from the outside, creating what is in essence a chimney. This is called the “stack effect” and results in warm air being lost and cold air replacing it.
Sealing up all the gaps and the tiniest cracks in the home of an elderly person is therefore critical. Caulking or expansion foam are good ways to close cracks and weather stripping should be applied to door and window frames. An old-fashioned door snake is ideal for cutting out a draft from under a door or attach a door sweep to the bottom of the door.
Even on the coldest winter days, the sun still produces heat and is the best provider of warmth. Opening drapes and curtains during the day and letting the sun in will warm the home of an elderly person during the day. Closing the curtains and drapes as the sun sets provides and additional layer of insulation to prevent that warmth from escaping.
Moving a favorite, comfy chair near a window that gets early morning or late afternoon sun is recommended. Sitting in the chair for just 15 to 20 minutes a day will provide additional warmth for the elderly plus provide them with a much needed dose of Vitamin D that is most often deficient in all people during winter. Keep a warm throw blanket there too to help the senior warm up quickly.
7. Heating Pads Or Blankets
Heating pads or blankets are electric and designed to fit under the sheet and directly on top of the mattress. The pads heat the bed according to different temperature settings. The pads are ideally suited to heating the bed before getting into it night.
However, some heating pads are designed to be kept on throughout the night and have a thermostat to help regulate temperature. Be aware that sleeping with a heating pad on through the night does pose an electrical shock and fire hazard and this should only be done if specified by the manufacture and according to the instructions for use.
This is the ideal solution for seniors who struggle to get to sleep or who are waking at night because they are cold.
There are many different reasons why elderly people can feel cold ranging from medical problems to medications to effects of aging. Use these methods and advice keep elderly people warm all year long.