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Practical Caregiving

If You Think You're Cold, Try It at Age 80!

By Jean Donahue

Iíve been doing what a lot of family caregivers end up doing -- clearing out the house. Mom and Dad lived there 25-to-30 years, and I lived there with my kids for several years after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. They were able to get rid of all the cancer, but living there worked so well for all five of us that we continued living in the same house.

With the help of good friends and family, Iíve gone through my parents' things, deciding what to give to family and friends, what to keep for myself, selling what I could, and putting the rest in a dumpster. My kids went through their things, taking what they wanted to keep, then adding what they didnít want to the dumpster. After nearly a year of going through things and finding homes for a lot of it, I was finally finished. I was ready to move.

I live in Iowa, so moving in December can be a problem if the weather doesnít cooperate. However, this year we've had a mild winter with no snow until the middle of January. There was a period in December when temperatures hung in the 20ís, but most of the time they have been in the 30ís to 50ís -- except, I might add, for the one day I moved. It was 5 degrees when the moving company arrived.

The doors to the house were open, and the furnace could only keep the house to 40 degrees. I wasnít dressed for those temperatures, but couldnít do anything about it since everything was packed. After the truck was loaded we drove to Des Moines from where I was living in Granger, Iowa. Again, the doors were open while they moved everything in. The furnace there couldnít keep the place any warmer than 40 degrees either.

I realized I was a little cold, but I didnít know just how cold I was until that evening. I have never felt so cold! No matter what I did, I couldnít get warm. I turned the furnace up, put on more clothes and socks, and piled on the covers, but still couldnít get warm. (Of course, my thermometer was packed so I didnít take my temperature. In fact, I didnít even think of taking it.) My daughter dropped in and told me I looked awful and that it was hot in my new place, but nothing registered a warning to either of us. All I could think about was the fact that I was cold. The next day I finally started feeling warmer, but it took longer to feel normal. For the next several days, there were times I suddenly felt cold again, for no apparent reason. That has finally quit happening.

About the same time as I moved, the news media talked about mountain climbers in Oregon who had disappeared in a snow storm. Later, one was found, but he was not alive. I donít think they have found the other two yet. I have wondered if they felt cold. I didnít feel very cold until I finally started to get ďwarmed up.Ē

So, what's all this got to do with caring for our elderly? Plenty:

Our elderly loved ones are more susceptible to hypothermia than adults younger than 65 who are healthy. That means most of us family caregivers are not as susceptible to hypothermia as our ill or elderly loved ones. Still, most of us have visited an elderly grandparent, aunt, uncle or friend who had the house so hot we could hardly stand to visit them. The reason they had the house so hot was that their body wasnít working the way it used to. Even with the thermostat cranked up to 80 degrees, they were actually cold. Now, 80F is still cooler than our normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees F. My Dad would wear a coat in the house even though my children and I felt hot. His body simply wasnít working well enough to keep him warm.

I understand there are other reasons why people feel cold when the temperature is somewhere between 70-75 degrees in the room. They could be ill or have a fever. Or, if they have a job, perhaps their place of business is kept at 80 degrees. Their body gets used to the higher temperatures, and when they are enter a cooler environment -- what we might think is normal -- they feel cold.  Our solders in Iraq who wear heavy military attire in temperatures that sore to 120 degrees Fahrenheit have come home saying it feels cold here when it is 85 or 90, so you can see that this adjustment affects more than our elderly -- although the elderly are more commonly susceptible..

As a family caregiver, you must be aware of the problems your loved one faces. If they say they are cold, take their temperature to see if their body temperature is normal, or high, or low. Donít assume anything. You canít tell whatís happening without actually taking their temperature.

You also need to be alert to the signs of hypothermia. In fact, you should print them off and review them periodically. If the furnace goes out, your loved one might start showing these warning signs. Keep that list where you can find it easily -- and review it. Donít depend on your memory, because you may forget something important.

My earlier column, The Cold Facts About Hypothermia in Our Elderly, describes the signs of hypothermia and what you should do if you see them in your loved one. Please read it and print off the warning signs as well as the guidelines to warm someone with signs of hypothermia. The extra few minutes it takes to print off the signs and review them every month or two (yes, elderly can even get cold in the warmer months) is well worth avoiding the problems that may arise.