By Wednesday of this week, forecasters are predicting that about half of the U.S., or 140 million people, will be enduring temperatures of zero degrees or lower. The Arctic chill that's blanketing the U.S. is bringing temperatures colder than many areas have seen in years. For many of those 140 million people, it's a matter of staying indoors and cranking up the heat. The snow might look pretty; but for seniors, there are a number of risks that could pose serious danger.
Not all seniors have the luxury of just turning up the heat, for example. Homes with electric heat pumps often have to use back-up heating sources in temperatures below 40 degrees, because it simply can't keep up. Couple the sub-zero temps with freezing rain and sleet, and some of those heat pumps will freeze up and stop functioning altogether. What's a senior to do when the primary--and only--heating source goes kaput when it's below freezing outside? Older homes may not have adequate insulation or may have drafts around windows and doors that make it difficult for any heating source to keep up in such bitter cold conditions.
In areas just blanketed by blizzards, heavy snow can down power lines, rendering electric heating sources useless. There are many seniors living alone who may have back-up heating sources such as a coal-burning stove, but running it requires hauling heavy buckets of coal and operating the stove's settings, while making sure you have a good carbon monoxide and smoke detector in the proper location--and functioning properly. Wood stoves are another common back-up in some areas, but again this requires either having a supply of wood that's been cut for the purpose or going out and cutting down some trees. Clearly, these just aren't reasonable scenarios for many seniors.
Heating fuel is expensive
In other cases, seniors rely on oil heat--but it's extremely expensive. And a week or two of unreasonably cold temperatures means you're burning through that oil at a quicker pace. If the fuel oil runs out, and a senior has no financial resources to replenish it, what's the alternative?
Unfortunately, these conditions often lead to seniors turning on the cooking oven and opening the door. Never a good idea, but it seems preferable to the alternative at the time. If the hot water heater runs on the primary heat source and it's defunct, that means no hot water. Hot water heater aside, sub-zero temperatures without adequate heat lead to frozen pipes--a costly disaster no one wants to deal with.
Heading outdoors is dangerous for seniors in icy, freezing conditions
These bitter cold temperatures and icy conditions pose other risks to seniors, too. If a senior ventures outdoors, unaware of the icy conditions, a slip and fall is not an uncommon consequence. And seniors with Alzheimer's disease or dementia may fail to dress appropriately before heading outdoors, even just to check the mail, and wind chills of -25 to -60 degrees can mean hypothermia or frost bite. If a senior lives in an unpopulated area and slips and falls on the way to the mailbox, it could spell disaster with no one around to help and no way to call for help.
Prepare your loved one for hazardous weather conditions
So if you have an aging loved one who lives at home alone, it's time to make sure they're prepared for the extreme cold and hazardous conditions impacting much of the U.S. this week. Make sure the home's primary fuel source is replenished, and get a back-up plan in place for emergency outages. Go over safety practices, such as not using the kitchen stove as a source of heat. Portable kerosene heaters can also be dangerous, creating obstacles for navigating the home and quickly causing fires if they're knocked over. These devices are particularly bad ideas if your loved one uses portable oxygen.
Get your loved one a pay-as-you-go mobile phone or an emergency communication device so she can get in touch with someone if she should slip and fall. Make sure the home has plenty of blankets and your loved one has an ample amount of weather-appropriate clothing, and check to make sure doors and windows close securely. Advise her not to venture outdoors for any reason, even to retrieve the mail.
Better yet, make sure your aging loved one isn't alone over the next few days. Have her come and stay with you or send a family member to stay with her. If that's not possible, there are other options, such as respite care. Senior living communities have plans in place for emergencies to cope with power outages that ensure the building is adequately heated and that medical equipment still has power.
These nasty weather conditions aren't pleasant or necessarily safe for anyone, but seniors are especially prone to danger. Taking steps to make sure your aging loved ones stay safe and warm through the upcoming week could save their lives.
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Post by Angela Stringfellow