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The New Year is upon us and with it, the chilling conditions for the next few winter months. There are potential hazards with every season but winter storms and cold temperatures can be especially dangerous.

Most of us from time to time have felt cold during the winter, but what many may not know is being very cold has the potential of being dangerous. Remember being young and playing outside in the snow for hours and not being troubled by the cold? Changes occur as we age, causing older adults to lose body heat faster than when younger.

Staying Warm, Medical Conditions and Medicines

Several illnesses make it harder for your body to stay warm and should be acknowledged.

  • Thyroid problems have been known to make it harder for a person to maintain proper body temperature.
  • Diabetes can change normal blood flow making it difficult for the body to stay warm.
  • Parkinson’s disease and arthritis can increase the difficulty of putting on more clothing. Use a blanket or stay out of the cold.
  • Memory loss can cause a person to venture outside in the cold without being properly dressed.

Talk with your doctor about your health conditions and avoiding possible hypothermia.

Taking certain medication and not being active may also affect the body’s ability to maintain body heat. The effects of medications include over-the-counter medicines (such as cold medications). It is best to consult with your doctor about medical conditions, medication, and cold weather.


What is Hypothermia? According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA): ”Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature of 95 degrees or lower can cause many health problems, such as heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.”

Furthermore, the NIA continues to warn: “Being outside in the cold, or even being in a very cold house, can lead to hypothermia. Try to stay away from cold places, and pay attention to how cold it is where you are. You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia.”

Warning signs of Hypothermia

Below are warnings signs for hypothermia to watch for in others and yourself. Watch very very cold homes, or persons not dressed for the cold weather. Be sure to have a discussion with family and friends about these warning signs so they can help be on the outlook for you.

The list below has been adapted from  https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cold-weather-safety-older-adults

Early signs:

  • Cold feet and hands
  • Puffy or swollen face
  • Pale skin
  • Shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
  • Slower than normal speech or slurring words
  • Acting sleepy
  • Being angry or confused

Later signs:

  • Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
  • Stiff and jerky arm or leg movement
  • Show heartbeat
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Blacking out or losing consciousness

Call 911 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.

Keeping Warm Indoors

Although the focus thus far has been directed at seniors, there are also various reasons for people with special needs to have problems staying warm and comfortable. The NIA notes: “Even if you keep your temperature between 60°F and 65°F, your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe.” Living alone becomes a problem because there is no one else is there to feel the chill of your home. Below are some tips to help with keeping you warm indoors:

  • Set your thermostat to at least 68°F and 70°F. While doing this close vents and close the doors to rooms you are not using and keep the basement door closed.
  • Use space heaters with caution, some space heaters can be fire hazards, some can cause carbon monoxide poising. Read and follow all instructions and consumer safety precautions.
  • Check your smoke alarms and CO2 detectors.
  • Be sure to follow routine maintenance of furnaces, be sure vents are clear, and check any filters regularly.
  • Roll towels and place them in front of doors with a draft. Make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep blinds, curtains or drapery closed. If you have gaps around the windows, consider using weather stripping, caulk, or plastic window sheets.
  • If you suspect your home does not have enough insulation, you may wish to contact your state or local energy agency. You may also consider contacting your local power and gas company. All of these agencies may be able to provide you with valuable information on winterizing your home. This can help in lowering your utility bills and they have special programs to aid those people with limited incomes.
  • Even though you are staying indoors, on cold days add an extra layer of clothing, a simple blanket or extra pair of socks and slippers can do wonders.
  • Try wearing long underwear under your pajamas, wear socks, or maybe throw on an extra blanket. Wear a cap or hat to bed. Keeping warm is far more important on cold winter nights than appearance.
  • Body fat helps you stay warm. If you don’t eat well you have less fat under the skin, therefore make sure you eat enough to main your weight.
Bowl of chicken soup
  • Alcoholic drinks have been shown to cause the body to lose heat, if you, drink do it in moderation.
  • Have an emergency plan, include your physician in the planning. Have emergency contacts in place, a list of prescription medications. Those with special needs should sign up with your area Special Needs Registry.
  • If you are having a hard time paying your heating bills, you may be able to get some help by contacting the National Energy Assistance Referral service at energyassistance@ncat.org, or by calling 1-866-674-6327 (toll-free; TTY, 1-866-367-6228) for more information about the Low Income Home Assistance Program.

Several online resources are addressing cold weather concerns and precautions that are important for people with disabilities and the elderly. Listed below are some basic tips to help keep them safer and warmer.

It may seem repetitive, but Make staying warm a priority!

  1. Wear multiple layers of clothing. Simply because of limitations that accompany the winter season, maintaining body heat is certainly one of the major challenges. Wearing layered clothing during the winter months will help to keep your body warm. Just remember it easier to add another layer of clothing, than to endure the alternative of being chilled. When braving the outdoors you should consider Dr. Kevin Sirmons reports: “40-45 percent of body heat is lost through the head and neck due to increased blood flow in comparison with the rest of the body.” So don’t forget a wearing scarf and a hat, additionally, your ears are part of your head and will serve you better if covered in cold temperatures. Finally, any exposed part of the body in the cold has the potential for heat loss. Wear insulated gloves, doubled up socks, and a pair of lined winter boots when going outdoors.
  2. A final word on layering. If possible have a winter coat with a hood attached. It is easy if you are caught outside without a hat or conditions become windy to simply flip the hood up over your head. Lastly, layering is best done using thin layers allowing air between layers to act as insulation and allow for freedom of movement. Avoid cotton whenever possible, once wet or damp it does not dry-well. Man-made fibers such as polypropylene tend to wick moisture away from the body. If your clothing should become damp or wet change them as soon as possible.

Additional Winter Safety Precautions:

  • Keep your Sidewalk Cleaned: Keeping your sidewalks free of snow and ice is critical for anyone with mobility difficulties. We all find it difficult to navigate icy walkways and through three of snow. Now just imagine trying to use a cane or walker, or traveling in a wheelchair, whether it be traditional or motorized. Be sure the sidewalk is cleaned wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. The width of a shovel blade is not wide enough.
  • Wheelchairs: On the Easter Seals website Phyllis Buchanan, who is a power wheelchair user, provides some tips:
    • Think of your wheelchair as a car, especially in the winter. “this means making sure everything is tuned up, charged, and ready for possible rough terrain ahead.”
    • She also suggests, “having an emergency kit in case you become stuck in hazardous conditions. Some items to have on hand include a protein bar, bottle of water, hand warmers, and kitty litter to use for traction.”
    • Buchanan also recommends: “wheelchair users should consider buying an all-weather poncho that is spacious enough to fit over you and your chair. They can be found at any camping supply store.”
    • Another of Phyllis’s ideas is: “wheelchair users may want to consider outfitting their wheelchair with snow tires to prepare for the icy conditions. If you’re seeking financial assistance or a grant to make sure your wheelchair is winter-ready, consider reaching out to your local Easter seals for advice.”
  • Stock Up: We have already discussed the importance of maintaining body fat and the need for eating properly in the winter months. Being prepared for severe winter storms means stocking up on not only some non-perishable food items but also batteries, and if you heat with wood, a good supply of firewood, but also make sure all appropriate prescriptions are filled.
  • Carry a cell phone: It seems like a simple idea but keeping a charged cell phone with you can be a lifesaver, if you slip and fall, if you are stranded in your car, or simply lock yourself out of your house.
  • Move Slowly: If you do need to go out during the winter months, especially during or right after a weather event, even if it’s just to your mailbox, walk slowly and keep your balance and take your cell phone with you. Use cheaters on your boots or shoes, they dig into ice and hard-packed snow. For those requiring walking aids be sure to have rubber tips on them so that if you put all your weight on the device it will help to prevent slipping on ice. Finally, it is not a good idea to use rollators in snow or on ice.
  • Sign up with the Special Needs Registry in your area: On the website https://www.usedhandicapvans.com/blog/winter-safety-tips-for-people-with-disabilities/ they report: “Each county within each state of the United States has what is called a ‘Special Needs Registry’. This allows those residents who have special needs or who require special assistance to register with their county. If there is a natural disaster or an evacuation, or something else that would require assistance, your information will be on file in the area that you live in, making it more accessible to get the help you need, when you need it most.”

They go on to explain: “Refer to an example of the Special Needs Registry in Fairfax County, VA.”

  • Don’t forget your four-legged friends: While tending to our winter needs, we shouldn’t forget about our furry friends who we depend on much more than we often realize. Although they may have thick natural fur coats our pets can suffer from hypothermia and frostbite just as much as people. Seeing-eye dogs and service animals need to be prepared and protected for harsh winter conditions to ensure their safety. Service dogs going outdoors should have boots to protect their feet not only from the cold and ice buildup on their fur but equally important to protect their feet from rock salt used on walkways and streets. Undissolved salt crystals can be not only painful but harmful to the animal’s paws.

Work Cited:

Sirmons, Kevin, MD, NRP. (2016). 5 Ways Body Heat is Lost. Retrieved from: https://www.centracare.com/blog/2016/january/top-5-ways-body-heat-is-lost/

HMEA. (2015). Winter Considerations and Safety Tips for People With Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.hmea.org/winter-considerations-and-safety-tips-for-people-with-disabilities/

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter. Retrieved from:https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/winterweather/index.html

National Institute for the Aging, Staff.  (2021). Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults. U.S. Department Health & Human Services. Retrieved from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cold-weather-safety-older-adults

Van Products, admin. (2015). Winter Safety Tips for People with Disabilities. Retrieved from:  https://www.usedhandicapvans.com/blog/winter-safety-tips-for-people-with-disabilities/

Ridley Park Police Department. (2021). Tips for the Disabled & Elderly During Winter. Retrieved from:  http://www.infoineed.com/health/safety-tips-for-the-elderly-and-disabled-during-winter

Additional Resources:

Winter Safety Tips for People with Disabilities

6 ways to stay warm and well this winter if you have a disability

Winter Storms – Red Cross Offers 15 Ways to Stay Safe When Winter Hits

Winter Safety Tips

Winter Safety on the Spectrum

Winter Weather Safety Tips

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