We’ve been attacked from all sides lately with cold weather, brutal winds and the ice has made it downright frightening to think about walking. We older adults are more vulnerable than the younger generations to hypothermia, as well as broken bones. If we are lucky, we can stay warm, but the truth is that for many, we can’t stay warm enough.

Hypothermia can be deadly if not treated quickly. The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice to help older people avoid hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. With advancing age, the body’s ability to endure long periods of exposure to cold is lowered.

Some older people also are at risk for hypothermia because their body can’t fight back against the cold, because of certain illnesses such as diabetes and some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. In addition, older adults may be less active and generate less body heat. As a result, they can develop hypothermia even after exposure to relatively mild cold weather or a small drop in temperature.

The best way to identify someone with hypothermia is to look for confusion or sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, weak pulse, poor control over body movements or slow reactions. If you suspect that someone is suffering from the cold and you have a thermometer available, take his or her temperature. If it’s 96 degrees or lower, call 911 for emergency help.

The National Institute on Aging has information to help you prevent hypothermia. Some of this may sound like common sense to us, but there’s no harm in reviewing these tips:

• Wear several layers of loose clothing when it is cold. Dig out one of those fleece scarves you received for Christmas, and wrap it around your shoulders. The idea is to have loose layers so they will trap body warmth.

• Wear a hat, scarf, gloves or mittens and warm clothes when you go outside in cold weather. A significant amount of your body heat can be lost through your head, and hands and feet are the first body parts to get cold.

• To keep warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers.

• Use a blanket or afghan to keep legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.

When it really gets cold and I must go outside, I sometimes wear an old pair of flannel pajama bottoms under my jeans or slacks, but longjohns may work better. Don’t force on two pairs of socks unless your shoes or boots are roomy enough to allow for this extra.

• Try to keep your home warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Close the doors or block off unused rooms. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia in older people.

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

Because heating costs are high, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay their heating bills. For more information, contact the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (1-866-674-6327) or the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116 or contact your local Human Services department. You can always call 211 here in Maine and tell them you are elderly, cold, and can’t afford fuel. They will provide guidance.

Kay Soldier welcomes reader ideas for column topics of interest to seniors. She can be reached by email at [email protected], or write to 114 Tandberg Trail, Windham, ME 04062.

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