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Four Tips for Coping With the Cold

The elderly are especially vulnerable to hypothermia. How to keep parents safe.

January 24, 2014

Everyone knows about winter risks like slipping and falling on ice. But did you know the elderly can suffer from hypothermia even in a slightly cool house, between 60 and 65 degrees?

With a polar vortex and record-setting cold closing in on the Midwest and Northeastern regions of the country, it’s a good time to check in on your elderly parents and loved ones to make sure they’re staying warm, even indoors.

(MORE: How to be a Loving Advocate for Your Parents)

The elderly are especially vulnerable to hypothermia, typically defined as a body temperature of 95 degrees or lower. Underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, can reduce the body’s ability to adapt to external temperature changes. So can the use of medications, including over-the-counter cold drugs. Even brief exposure to the extreme temperatures much of the country is experiencing can be dangerous.

When you check in, be on the lookout for signs of hypothermia. These include: slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions or a weak pulse, according to the National Institutes on Aging (NIA), which is part of the National Institutes on Health (NIH).

(MORE: 10 Signs That an Older Person May Need Help)

The NIA recommends these four tips to help older people keep warm and avoid hypothermia:

1. Make sure your home is warm enough. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older people.

2. Wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.

3. If you must go outside, wear a hat, scarf and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear several layers of warm loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.

4. Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.