Staying warm in the cold

Published on 31 August 2014

an elderly person with a warm blanket and book in front of a fire

As we head into winter and the temperatures begin to fall, it’s important for older people in our community, who can be more prone to illness and vulnerable throughout the winter period to be prepared.

As we age, our body’s ability to regulate its temperature is less efficient, so while chilly temperatures during Australian winters may seem bearable for most of us, it can be a different story for older people in the community.

The chances of contracting colds and flu or more serious cold related health conditions are more likely if you are over 65, on a low income and have trouble heating your home or perhaps have a long-term health condition such as cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

Following these simple steps will help keep yourself and your home warm this winter:

Preparing for winter

  • Have gas heaters serviced by a registered gas fitter every two years to reduce the risk of house fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. Check flues and chimneys are in good working order.
  • Check the wire on electric blankets, heaters and other electrical appliances and ensure they are not worn or broken.
  • Clean any heater filters regularly to keep free of dust.
  • Get the flu vaccine – influenza causes wide-spread illness every year, particularly amongst high-risk groups including people over 65. Immunisation is a way to reduce the risk of flu infections and is free for people aged 65 and over.

Keeping yourself warm

  • Layer up - wearing several think layers, rather than one thick layer will keep you warmer. Layers trap warm air close to the body, woolly or thermal clothes are ideal.
  • Head wear – a lot of heat is lost through the head and neck, so if you’re feeling chilly, even if you are indoors, try wearing a hat or scarf.
  • Footwear – for those cold toes and feet, remember to wear good fitting thick socks and slippers when you are at home and sturdy shoes with a good grip when you are out and about. At night time, bed socks and thermal underwear are a good idea.
  • Blankets – when you are sitting down, a shawl or blanket is a quick way to provide extra warmth and comfort. Keeping your feet up also helps because the air is cooler at ground level.
  • Outdoors – when you leave the house, make sure you wear a warm coat, hat, gloves and scarf. Scarves can be used to cover your head and neck and also to cover your mouth and nose so your lungs are protected from the cold air.
  • Night time – use hot water bottles or electric blankets to warm the bed, but never use them both together as this can be dangerous. When using electrical goods always read the instructions carefully. Blankets should be tested every three years for safety, never left on for more than 30 minutes and turned off when you go to bed. Bed socks, thermal underwear and a hat at night time are also a good idea.

Keeping your home warm

  • Prevent heat escaping – draw your curtains as soon as it gets dark and use draft excluders to stop cold air flowing through your home. Keep doors and windows closed to keep the heat in, and close doors to rooms which are not in use to keep more heat in the rooms you are using. Thermal linings fitted to your curtains are also a good idea to help keep the heat in.
  • Control your heating – use timers to set your heat to come on before you get up so that the house is warm when you wake, and to go off when you go to bed. Ideally, heat your main living areas in the daytime to around 21º C and in your bedroom overnight above 18º C. Where possible turn the heating off in rooms you are not using.
  • Portable heaters – these can be handy to warm up a small space or room. Please ensure they are positioned a few metres away from yourself and any other items to avoid risks of burns or skin damage or to avoid a fire risk. Heaters should always be turned off when you leave the house or go to bed.
  • Natural warmth – on bright, sunny days, open your curtains and blinds to let the sunlight in and bring natural warmth into your home.

Eating well

  • Regular meals – eating at regular intervals helps keep your energy levels up as well as generating body heat.
  • Nourishing foods – soups, casseroles and porridge are nutritious and easy meals to eat. Hot drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate are also ideal.

Staying active

  • Light exercise – if your routine includes going for a gentle walk, you should still try to continue with this activity during the winter period. Exercise helps to increase your body’s temperature, as well as your mobility, and promotes a healthy mind.
  • Keep moving – if you are unable to go outdoors for light exercise, try and stay active at home. If possible, try to move around the house at least once an hour to increase your body’s temperature and keep your blood flow circulating.
  • Weather check - always check the local weather forecast before you go out so you can prepare and dress appropriately with warm clothing. Of course, if the weather is extreme or you are sick it is not advisable to venture out.

Keeping an eye out

Checking in regularly on elderly relatives and neighbours is important throughout the winter period to prevent any serious illness occurring such as hypothermia.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness

If you suspect an elderly person is suffering from hypothermia, please contact the emergency services.

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