Two weeks ago, I spent the entire Sunday in shorts and a t-shirt playing basketball with my oldest three sons. This past Sunday, the clothing ensemble looked more appropriate to a typical January day but the weather was still remarkably warm coming on the heels of a snowy Friday morning which caused the cancellation and delay of hundreds of schools and businesses across the Triangle. This morning’s forecast warns of an extreme cold front moving through our area during the next few days. Tonight’s temperatures are expected to dip into the low twenties and tomorrow night will reach into the teens. Daytime temps will offer very little respite from the cold. High temperatures are expected to be in the low 40’s with wind chills that should keep most of us inside for the next 7-10 days. Brrrrr!

In light of the approaching winter weather, allow me to ask a question. What are you doing to make sure that the senior in your life survives? Pardon the Draconian language but extreme bouts of cold weather are potentially lethal for seniors.

Part of the normal aging process is a natural thinning of the skin. Gone are the days of being regarded as ‘thick-skinned.’ This change makes it more difficult for a senior to regulate the temperature of their own body. By itself, thin skin isn’t particularly dangerous and is easy problem for which to compensate. The complications arise when you factor in some of the other changes and realities of the normal aging process. A senior nervous system doesn’t process information as quickly as it did during younger years. As a result, a senior likely will not realize he is cold until the early effects of hypothermia have already set in. Furthermore, one of the early signs of hypothermia is muscle stiffness particularly in the neck, arms and legs. Have you ever met a senior who complains of being a little stiff? Ironically, the chronic aches and pains that most seniors have grown accustomed to ignoring are the very ones that should alert them of danger within their own bodies.

For a moment, we should consider the possibility that the seniors in our lives might also be taking prescription medications. Seniors account for 25% of all prescription medications taken in this country so it seems only reasonable that we consider this as a possibility. Many of the medications that seniors take can further inhibit the body’s natural alarm systems placing seniors at an even greater risk.

Here are a few things you can do if you are a senior to protect yourself:

  • If you live alone, arrange for a daily check-in call with a friend, neighbor, relative, etc.
  • Wear warm clothing. Instead of tight clothing, wear several loose, warm layers. Wear a hat and scarf to avoid significant heat loss through your head and neck. Stay dry. Moisture from perspiration, rain, or melting snow can seriously reduce or destroy the insulating value of clothing because water conducts body heat over 25 times faster than air.
  • Use extra blankets because hypothermia can develop during sleep.
  • Eat nutritious foods and exercise moderately; proper diet and physical conditioning help protect you against abnormal heat and cold.
  • Get proper rest; fatigue makes you more vulnerable to subnormal heat and cold.
  • Drink adequate amounts of liquids, such as water. Limit your alcohol intake because alcohol speeds up body heat loss.

Check out this article from the SC Office on Aging about warning signs and dangers of hypothermia in senior citizens.