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Alzheimer’s Care: Hypothermia Hazards

By Lee Nyberg, 4:53 pm on

“Real feel” was 3 °F when I woke up this morning.

You’ve heard of hypothermia—a dangerous drop in body temperature—but did you know it doesn’t have to be bitterly cold to get it?

Hypothermia causes disorientation in the cognitively capable and magnifies dementia in the confused.  This can happen at 55-60 °F, such as might occur if a house’s heating goes out overnight.

Health conditions make older adults more susceptible to hypothermia.  Diabetes, which restricts blood flow, changes a person’s ability to react to cold.  Cognitive or movement disorders, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and arthritis, make it difficult to put on warmer clothing, or move to a safer, warm place.  Medications, such as those for depression, can increase vulnerability to cold.

Recognizing hypothermia may be harder in someone who has trouble communicating, such as a person with post-stroke-related dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Additionally, the body’s common effort to increase heat (shivering), may be absent with hypothermia.  The National Institutes of Health says to look for the “umbles:” mumbles, stumbles, fumbles, and grumbles.

  • Speech: slowed and slurred
  • Movement/coordination: slowed and clumsy; person may fall or drop things
  • Thought: atypically labored and confused
  • Pulse: slowed and weak
  • Appearance: very pale or blue-gray skin

Act fast; even a drop of a few degrees below the normal body temperature of 98.6 °F can cause heart malfunction and death.

  • Take your loved one’s temperature and if it is below 95 °F, call 911.
  • Cover his head and torso first, using a hat and warm blankets or coats, but not too tightly. If he is wearing snug-fitting clothing, loosen it first, so warmth can circulate, then add more layers.
  • Help him to drink very warm, non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic liquid; (caffeine and alcohol can increase body heat loss)
  • Help him eat honey or a candy bar for a quick energy
  • Walk around, if possible, while waiting for emergency services

Preventing hypothermia begins with keeping inside temperatures at least at 68 °F.  The NIH recommends using only space heaters which have been safety tested by a recognized lab, like UL. Use heating pads for brief periods only, as these can burn an older adult’s delicate skin. If power fails, stay with others who have heat.

When staying inside is a must, be ready with a variety of activities.  A creative and purposeful spin makes activities more appealing for us all, including people with dementia.

  • Together, assemble a crockpot meal for an easy fireside dinner
  • Sort and wrap a big jar of coins either to donate or save for an outing when it is warmer—don’t forget to talk about where you’ll go
  • Make a tied fleece throw (video: https://youtu.be/htl6bez8y5c ) to donate to a children’s hospital or family shelter
  • Clean silver and have a fancy English tea party complete with hats and shawls
  • String cheerios and make peanut butter and seed pinecones to feed the birds

Make a game of wearing several loose layers of clothing, and keeping feet covered with warm socks and non-skid shoes—call it “Siberia Gear.”  Take regular “marches” around the house to keep blood flowing.

Winter’s worst weather means Spring can’t be far behind.

 

Lee Nyberg serves older adults and their families through education on aging issues and her company, Home Care Assistance.