Low temperatures can cause health problems for older people. Read our practical tips to help make sure your relative stays warm and comfortable during periods of cold weather.
On this page you will find information on:
1. Why we feel colder as we get older
2. Why older people need to maintain their body temperature
3. How to keep warm indoors
4. How to keep warm outdoors
Why we feel colder as we get older
As we get older, changes in our bodies can make us feel colder more of the time.
Blood pressure increases over time, and blood vessels tend to become stiffer as we age. Meanwhile, our blood becomes stickier, thicker and less efficient at carrying oxygen. This means it can become more difficult for the heart to pump blood around the body.
The system responsible for directing blood vessels to respond to the cold becomes less efficient over time. Also, the layer of fat under the skin that helps to absorb and hold body heat begins to thin as we age.
These physical factors contribute to heightened sensitivity to lower temperatures, as well as making older people more susceptible to health problems caused by the cold.
Why older people need to maintain their body temperature
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics demonstrate that there were around 24,300 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in 2015/16. Unfortunately, many older people in the UK are also faced with the prospect of having to choose between food and paying for heating in the winter months.
It’s particularly important for older people to maintain their body temperature at an optimal level (around 37°C). This is because letting your body temperature drop below 35°C can lead to serious conditions such as hypothermia.
Hypothermia is potentially dangerous, particularly for older people. NHS Choices offers advice on the signs and symptoms, and what to do if you find someone who has become hypothermic.
Older people may be at greater risk of suffering because of cold temperatures for a number of reasons, including:
- turning the heating off or down to save money
- some medical conditions can make older people less physically aware of changes in temperature
- lack of appropriate clothing or insufficient nutrition
- conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia mean that the person could forget how to operate the heating system, or no longer recognise when they are cold or warm (or how to respond accordingly)
- some people feel the cold more than others, so their natural reaction can be to turn the heating up to an unnecessarily high level. This can lead to overheating, which can be just as detrimental to their health. Find out more about what to do if you think your relative might have heat exhaustion or heat stroke in our guide to keeping cool.
How to keep warm indoors
There are several quick ways to help your loved one keep warm at home during colder months.
If it’s cool in their home, make sure your relative has enough thick, comfortable clothing handy, and that they wear multiple layers when it’s appropriate. Wool tends to help maintain warmth, whereas cotton provides better ventilation and is usually more suitable for the summer months.
Sheepskin slippers or bootees are comfortable and great for keeping their feet warm.
Snugs, heated throws and chair pads
‘Snugs’ are soft, ergonomically designed pillows that fit around the body, providing extra comfort and warmth when sitting or lying down. Heated throws can also be a good option for an elderly relative to use on the sofa, and they usually have easy-to-use controls.
Heated chair pads can also provide comfort and even gently massage your relative’s lower back. This can be particularly useful if they have limited mobility and tend to sit in the same position for long periods of time.
When it comes to bedding, wool duvets are usually best for keeping warm. At lower temperatures, wool provides superior insulation, keeping body heat in and cool air out.
You can also get heated bedding, including electric under-blankets, or toppers, that fit over the mattress; or electric over-blankets, which lie over the top of the duvet. Find out more about how to buy the best electric blanket.
Heating the home
If you want to ensure your relative’s home stays at a comfortable temperature, it’s important to make sure the property is well insulated. Taking steps to improve insulation can significantly decrease energy bills and also reduce the impact on the environment.
Dealing with heating costs
Often, the cost of heating can be a key issue for older people. As described in our article about understanding benefits for the elderly, an annual ‘winter fuel’ payment of £200-300 is available to older people to help with fuel costs. This grant can make a lot of difference throughout the year, but particularly in winter, when it can cost more to heat a property.
It’s also worth noting that some people make significant yearly savings simply by changing their energy supplier. Visit our Which? Switch site and provide a few details about your energy supply to find and choose the best deal for you.
It’s important to ensure that heating units are easy for your relative to use and manage. Try to avoid introducing heaters with complicated controls, and always make sure they can reach the dial or remote comfortably. For example, if your relative usually uses a wheelchair, it’s important that the controls are at a suitable height.
Central heating can provide the best coverage throughout the home, but sometimes it may be appropriate to use portable fan heaters to maintain the temperature in certain rooms. Heaters should never be covered up and they may not be appropriate for people suffering with dementia because they can present a fire hazard if the unit is left on for an extended period of time.
See which models we’ve rated as Best Buys in our electric heater reviews.
Easy-to-read temperature monitors can remind people to keep an eye on the temperature in their home. Putting the unit in a place where your relative is likely to see it frequently can help. You can set up alerts in combination with monitors to automatically inform carers when the temperature goes either above or below a pre-set threshold.
Reducing risks around temperature
There’s a number of other ways you can reduce the risks around increases and decreases in temperature, including introducing home-automation devices and services.
Smart thermostatic devices can automatically turn the heating up or down, depending on the temperature in the home.
There are at least 10 smart systems on the market, all with varying features. If you have a boiler and central heating, you will likely be able to retro-fit them. Some systems allow you to control heating from a laptop, smart phone or tablet, which means you can monitor and regulate the temperature of your relative’s home remotely.
Many of these products allow you to pre-set customised heating patterns, which means you can set them up to deal with a number of different situations. Some even allow you to set different temperatures for different rooms. This can be handy if, for example, your relative has a preference for being warm in the living room and cooler in the bedroom.
If you aren’t able to help regulate their heating, one thing to consider is whether your relative is likely to remember to change the temperature without assistance. If your relative has memory problems, it may be better to opt for a smart thermostat that can learn the temperatures they prefer at different times of day.
Some units also measure the outside temperature to either increase or decrease the temperature automatically to compensate for extreme weather.
For more information, check out our guide to smart thermostats. If you would like to see full reviews showing the best options available, Which? members can visit our smart thermostat reviews hub (note: you will need to log in to see the articles in full).
In a similar vein, you can set some gas fires to automatically switch off once the home has reached a certain temperature. This can be really handy if your relative sometimes leaves the heat on at a very high level when the weather gets cold.
Linked temperature alerts
Telecare systems provide peace of mind for elderly people and their carers. They use alerts and communication with a monitoring centre to help carers, medical professionals and family members react quickly if there’s a problem.
Systems featuring built-in temperature controls can send an alert to a call centre when the heat is higher or lower than pre-set temperature parameters. The call centre will, in the first instance, call the person and suggest they turn their heating up if it gets too cold. They will also alert the next of kin or healthcare professionals to let them know the person is at risk, in case they need to take action.
Find out more in our guide to telecare systems.
How to keep warm outdoors
Generally, ensuring your relative wears multiple layers in cold weather should be the first port of call.
If you relative has poor circulation in their hands and feet, heated insoles and gloves could be a good choice. There are disposable options available which, when activated, last up to four hours. Alternatively you could opt for similar, rechargeable battery-operated products which your relative can use repeatedly.
People can become uncomfortable very quickly when sitting outdoors in a wheelchair in cold weather. There’s a wide range of wheelchair accessories available to help keep your relative warm when they’re out and about.
Sometimes, wearing multiple layers or a thick coat when sitting in a wheelchair can feel too bulky. Wheelchair seat liners are often a good option. You can find both padded cushions and simple fleeces to prevent the cold seeping through the seat and back canvas without compromising on comfort.
A wheelchair ‘cosy’ (rather like a lined sleeping bag for the legs) can also help keep the cold out, and they are usually easy to use and zip up. Wheelchair shawls pull over the head and around the shoulders, and have a high collar to keep out drafts.
Keeping dry outdoors
Waterproof clothing can often be enough to help your relative stay dry in rainy weather if they are mobile enough to move around without a wheelchair or scooter.
If your loved one has mobility issues, wheelchair capes and macs provide whole-body coverage to keep the rain at bay. They are available with hoods, and with or without sleeves - just make sure to find one that’s fully wind and waterproof.
Additionally, there are special umbrellas available which attach to the backs of wheelchairs available. Sometimes, it may be better to delay a trip if the weather is particularly bad. It can be very tricky to avoid the potential discomfort caused by heavy rain, as the water can sometimes collect in the seat area.
- Medical problems and medication management: advice on vision and hearing problems, dealing with incontinence, and prescription management.
- Assistive technology for older people: find out about electronic products and systems to help older people stay self and well.
- Keeping cool in warm weather: how to reduce the health risks associated with overheating during the summer months.
Campaign to demand fair energy prices
In the UK, approximately 16 million households are paying more than they should on their energy bills. Many are stuck on the most overpriced tariffs and, after years of disappointing customer service and cost increases, Which? is calling on energy suppliers to help their customers paying over the odds for their energy find better deals. You can get involved and help those struggling to pay their energy bills this winter by visiting the campaign page here and signing the petition.
Page last reviewed: December 2016
Next review due: June 2018