Call it the Oklahoma way… when the temperatures drop, we make it a point to check on our friends and neighbors. Hypothermia can be deadly, so let’s not take any chances. Thankfully, falls on icy steps, sidewalks or streets have not been a concern yet. However, the dangerously cold weather can be potentially deadly. AARP Oklahoma is advising family members, caregivers and friends to keep a close eye on older adults as they are especially vulnerable to hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below normal for a period of time. With advancing age, the body’s ability to handle exposure to cold weather is lowered. Older people are at risk for hypothermia because their body’s response to cold weather can be diminished by certain illnesses (such as diabetes) and some medicines (including over-the-counter cold remedies).  In addition, older adults are often less active and therefore generate less body heat.  As a result, they can develop hypothermia even after exposure to moderately cold weather or even just a small drop in temperature.

“Now is the time to be a good neighbor by checking in on your elderly neighbors to make sure they’re coping well,” said Sean Voskuhl, AARP Oklahoma State Director.  “This is just what we do in Oklahoma. We make it a priority to look out for others, especially our older neighbors and friends.”

The symptoms of hypothermia include 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.  Otherwise, if they are exhibiting some or all of these symptoms, get professional medical help immediately.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) (part of the National Institutes of Health) offers the following advice to help older people avoid hypothermia:

  • When going outside in the cold, it is important to wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. Also consider letting someone know you’re going outdoors and carry a fully charged cellphone. A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Some experts suggest that, for older people, the temperature be set to at least 68 degrees.
  • To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any medications (prescription or over the counter) you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay heating bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Applicants can call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) project at: 1-866-674-6327, e-mail or go to the LIHEAP website NEAR is a free service providing information on where you can apply for help through LIHEAP. The Administration for Children and Families funds the Energy Assistance Referral hotline.

The NIA has free information about hypothermia, including the brochure Stay Safe in Cold Weather, the fact sheet Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard, and a fact sheet in Spanish La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío. You can read these and other free publications on healthy aging on the NIA website or order free copies by calling NIA’s toll-free number: 1-800-222-2225.