Cold Weather Is Treacherous When You Have Alzheimer’s: 5 Ways to Keep Loved Ones Safe

Practical tips plus built-in protections

Do you face an onslaught of snow and ice each winter — or just chilly (or downright cold) temperatures? Wherever you live, if you care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll need to help them safely weather those months.

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“People with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are especially vulnerable to cold weather risks,” says Christine Nelson, BSN, MSN, a geriatric nurse specialist.

Here are her suggestions for keeping your loved one safe:

1. Stay warm, but not too warm

You might think keeping the house toasty is the best way to counter winter’s wrath. And that’s true to a point. But keeping the thermostat set too high can cause your loved one to overheat and sweat, and make them dehydrated.

“It’s best to keep the thermostat set between 54°F and 75 F°,” she advises. If your loved one feels chilly, have them dress in several layers of thin clothing to minimize heat loss.

2. Avoid electric blankets and space heaters

Space heaters and electric blankets are great for taking the chill out of the air on a cold day. But they’re not safe for anyone with Alzheimer’s to use on their own.

“Electric blankets are risky if they don’t automatically turn off when a person with Alzheimer’s falls asleep,” Ms. Nelson cautions. “And because older people are more likely to have thinner skin and less subcutaneous fat, their skin is more likely to burn.”

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Space heaters, though handy, are a fire hazard for someone with Alzheimer’s. If you must use a space heater, turn it on only when a caregiver can monitor it. “Look for a heater that turns off automatically after a set period of time or whenever it’s knocked over,” she notes.

3. Bundle up to venture outdoors

Make sure your loved one dresses for the weather when venturing out — including gloves, hat, scarf and an appropriate coat.

“We use cues that tells us it must be cold, such as looking outside and noticing that it’s snowing. But the person with Alzheimer’s might not put all that together,” Ms. Nelson says.

4. Guard against falls outside

Snow and freezing rain make walking outside treacherous for anyone. But those with Alzheimer’s are typically less steady on their feet than the rest of us, says Ms. Nelson.

Make sure your sidewalks and driveway are free of snow and ice to reduce the chance of slipping and falling. And make sure your loved one puts on sturdy shoes, or boots that lace and have good traction.

5. Beware the winter blues

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can strike during winter months, can affect those who have Alzheimer’s, Ms. Nelson says.

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The best options for keeping the blues at bay include:

  • Light therapy.
  • Regular exercise, such as walking.
  • Engaging with others, for instance at a senior center or adult day program.

“If you notice your loved one acting differently or not enjoying their usual activities, ask them if they feel a little down or depressed, and tell the doctor,” Ms. Nelson advises.

Building in protections

“Even people with dementia who are quite functional can go outside and just get befuddled,” Ms. Nelson points out.

So think through potentially risky scenarios and build in protections to help keep them safe. This is particularly important in the winter months, when exposure to cold can quickly turn tragic.

Consider having your loved one wear an ID bracelet or a GPS tracking device, Ms. Nelson advises. Setting up video cameras in your loved one’s home (with their approval) is another way to keep tabs on how they’re doing.

Thinking through these various “what ifs” will better prepare you to keep your loved one safe — in any season.

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