Caring for the elderly in winter

Posted: November 27, 2018

Great advice from our consultant geriatrician

In an aging population such as ours, Dr Sarah White, Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust's consultant geriatrician and clinical lead for dementia has some great advice on how best to stay warm during winter and look after older people who are more vulnerable to the cold.

Every year, we see a large number of elderly patients being admitted to hospital due to hypothermia, flu and other respiratory illnesses during the winter months. In fact, five to ten per cent of our admissions over the age of 65 are due to hypothermia.

Under healthy conditions, our bodies maintain a relatively stable temperature of around 37°C.

Hypothermia happens when we lose heat faster than we can produce it, causing a dangerous drop in the body temperature, below 35°C.

To prevent hypothermia, we must first recognise the symptoms - shivering, slurred speech, fast breathing, fatigue, confusion and the appearance of cold and pale skin are all early and visible signs of hypothermia.

If you see an older person suffering from these symptoms but you're unsure if it is hypothermia, just ask if you can do something for them - It's a simple but effective question, and you can then decide how best to help them.

Mild hypothermia can be treated by putting on a warm blanket or having hot drinks and high energy, sugary food.

However, once someone's body temperature drops to 32°C or lower, they'll usually stop shivering completely and may pass out.

Should you witness such an event, don't hesitate to call 999 for emergency medical help because hypothermia can be serious and potentially fatal if not treated quickly.

Adults over 65 are typically more vulnerable to hypothermia because they have reduced ability to regulate their own body temperature. This means that they lose heat faster and get cold easily.

In addition, a host of other health conditions such as arthritis or dementia impairs an older person's ability to dress warm and stay active.

It's always a good idea to check on your elderly relatives and neighbours regularly, ensuring their homes are warm and well heated to a temperature above 18°C, by using a room thermometer.

Frequent visits also mean that you can spot any signs of illness and get them the medical help they need, quickly.

Quite often, older people are reluctant to ask for help even when they're struggling to cope with the cold weather so it's important to just be there for them, and be attentive to their needs.

Hypothermia isn't the only illness that kills.

Flu is serious so this year, we're offering a more effective 'adjuvant' vaccine to those aged 65 and over, which helps their immune systems develop protection against flu.

Adults over 65 are eligible for a free flu vaccine from their GP or local pharmacy, so if you know an elderly person who hasn't been vaccinated, encourage them to have that extra layer of protection this winter.

There are plenty of resources to help elderly people cope with the cold winter months. For instance, the government offers a Winter Fuel Payment scheme for older people to help them pay their heating bills.

If you do find yourself in a position where you need to help an elderly person suffering from the cold or even with hypothermia there are some myths we'd like to dispel. Often, our first instinct is to rub their arms when it gets chilly but this is something we should avoid doing entirely.

By massaging the limbs, we're opening up the blood vessels near the surface of the skin quickly and it's only going to make them lose heat faster.

A hot bath may sound like a good idea but please be advised that it's not. Raising the body temperature rapidly can put a cold person into cardiac arrest due to shock.

Alcoholic drinks and caffeine should also be avoided. Instead, offer them a cup of hot chocolate and energy food that contains sugar, but only if they can swallow normally.

Remember, body contact is always good so give the elderly people you care for, a warm hug, stay well and enjoy winter!

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