When freezing winter weather strikes, here’s a few steps you could take to ensure that the person you care about doesn’t suffer.
Cranking up the central heating and putting on an extra layer are all part and parcel of dealing with wintry weather. But for someone with dementia, these sort of actions don’t always come naturally. For example, they may struggle with their heating system or even forget how to operate it. Meanwhile, their dressing habits could also be affected – either by a loss of mobility or an inability to work out what clothing might be suitable.
A comfortable living temperature for most people is between 18-20°C, but older people tend to feel the cold a lot more as their circulation declines, so you may need to set it slightly higher. If possible, set heating systems on an automatic timer so heat comes on at regular times during the day (and not just morning and evening as they’re likely to be at home for substantial periods during the day).
If you help them to dress, try to ensure they wear lots of layers that are easy to remove (cardigans that can be zipped up or wrap-around shawls). Try putting extra items of clothing in easy-to-find places, such as over the back of a favourite chair, on the back of a bedroom door or near the front door so they can put them on easily. Leaving blankets and throws around the house is also a good idea – but make sure they don’t trail on the floor and cause a tripping hazard.
A good quality winter coat and some sturdy boots with grips on the sole will be needed for when they head outdoors into cold or icy weather.
Food & drink
Encourage your loved one to make regular hot drinks as that will help to warm them up and ensure they stay hydrated. Likewise, at least one hot meal a day is recommended. If they can no longer cook for themselves, you could sign up for a meals-on-wheels dinner.
Home monitoring systems can often track temperature in the home and will send an alert if it drops below a certain number. That way, if the heating packs up and the person with dementia doesn’t realise, or doesn’t know how to deal with it, a carer or family member will be made aware of it.
Signs of hypothermia
This is a low body temperature which can cause serious health and wellbeing problems, including memory loss, confusion, loss of judgement and reasoning (someone with hypothermia may decide to remove clothing despite being very cold), drowsiness, exhaustion and slurred speech. If not recognised and treated, hypothermia can be extremely serious, even causing death, so make sure you look out for the signs.
Worryingly, many of the signs of hypothermia could be misconstrued as dementia symptoms so make sure you consider their temperature if their symptoms suddenly take a turn for the worse.
Reducing the risk of falls
Winter weather always increases the risk of falls, particularly if the ground is icy or the ice has melted creating slippery pavements. As explained above, ensure that your loved one has a decent pair of winter shoes that have good grips – a fall on ice could be disastrous.
If they’re unsteady and you’re worried about them slipping on icy ground, they may need a walking stick, walking frame, rollator or even be accompanied to ensure they stay safe.
Providing them with a pendant fall alarm is a good idea throughout the year if they’re prone to falls, but particularly so during winter.
Winter-proofing the exterior
If snow has fallen or it’s very icy, your loved one may need external pathways and drives gritted or cleared of snow so they can get out.
Other issues to think about
If the person you care about relies on electric heaters, Just bear in mind that these should be checked regularly by an electrician to ensure they’re safe. They shouldn’t have anything laid over them, such as towels or wet clothes, as they pose a fire risk. If your loved one is a little unsteady on their feet, make sure the heater is not somewhere they may fall over it. Also, make sure they don’t use it as something to ‘grab hold of’ when they get up from a chair. Heaters can get hot and cause nasty burns.
If they have a gas fire, make sure they also have a carbon monoxide alarm in the house in case there is a leak, and if they use a wood burner or even an open fire, ensure they have enough fuel to keep them going. Don’t forget, if the person you care for was born before 5 July 1952, they will be eligible for winter fuel payments.
Staying indoors too much
While it can be tempting to encourage them to stay inside when the weather is really cold, doing this too much could be detrimental. Being outdoors in natural daylight, even if it’s just for 20 minutes each day, can help boost mood. So if they’re wrapped up warmly (see above) and can get out safely, try to encourage it.
Keeping in touch
It’s really important to stay in touch with the person you care about at this time of year. Whether that’s through visits, phone calls or via carers, relatives and friends. Knowing how they’re doing day to day will help you stay up to date – and it could help them to feel less alone, which can also be an issue during winter.