Keeping Warm – Living With Dementia by Emma Saunders

Cold Weather, Warm Heart: Caring for People Living with Dementia Over Winter

By Emma Saunders

Cold weather, especially the extreme cold spells that the UK now experiences, is a risk to health. It is particularly detrimental to the elderly and infirm. The cold can lead to pneumonia, hypothermia, flu, falls and injuries, heart attacks and strokes. The cold can also affect people with mental health issues such as depression and dementia.

People with dementia need extra care when the temperatures drop. As dementia mainly affects the older end of the population, people living with dementia are at a greater risk than others. They might forget the basics of dressing warmly, having the heating on and eating nourishing, warming food. Winter’s darker nights can seem to make dementia symptoms worse. So as a carer or relative of someone living with dementia, you can help ensure they are prepared and able to cope.

Keeping Warm

This is the singular most important way to care for those with dementia over winter. The home should be a cosy place where they can feel safe and secure. The dementia care specialists at Helping Hands recommend that a constant 18°C is needed, but this should also be adjusted as necessary. If the home has a programmable heating control, this will help. Set the controls so that the heating comes on an hour before the person gets up in the morning and switches off around their usual bedtime. This will mean there should be no worries about the house cooling down too much. 

Additional considerations for night-time are a hot water bottle or electric blanket. An electric blanket is only advisable if the person has a carer who will switch the blanket off or if you can set it to operate on an electric timer (simple plug-in devices are readily available and are very easy to use). 

Even though the house might be warm, for people who have limited mobility or people living with dementia who may forget to stay active might find body temperatures fall. If they dress themselves, make the choice of clothing easier by sorting out the warm items and putting them to hand. Move all summer and lightweight clothes out of the wardrobe and drawers to avoid these being picked out to wear. If you or a carer and help to dress the person you are caring for, layering is best. A few lighter layers are beneficial for heat retention rather than one thicker layer. Additionally, make sure there is a blanket next to their favourite seat that can be pulled on when needed.

Food and nourishment

The body needs fuel to stay warm, and this fuel comes from good nourishing food. Hearty, warming stews and soups, with a good helping of vegetables not only provides the body with the energy it needs to keep warm but also contributes to a healthy diet which will help to ward off colds and flu. 

Ensure the kitchen is well stocked so that healthy meals can be made and if you’re able, pre-cook and freeze meals that can be easily reheated. Regular meals are important and if there’s difficulty in managing portion size, add snacks into the routine. A biscuit with a nice cup of tea always works well. Consider Labelling drawers and cupboards – add a picture of the contents.

General Health

It is easy to feel that the best thing for someone living with dementia is best kept safe and sound indoors but this can contribute to depression as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. If it is too cold to go for a walk or to meet up with friends, make sure there are regular visitors. Find some enjoyable activities [see www.dementiaworkshop.co.uk] that can be done indoors. It’s important to not let the winter become a routine where the person sits in front of the TV all day. 

If a person is on regular medication, ensure the correct prescriptive drugs are stocked. It is also advisable to have a supply of cold and flu medicine in the house. And don’t forget to schedule an appointment before winter-time to have the flu jab. 

Christmas

Although those with dementia may not have a sense of what is happening around them, no assumption should be made that they won’t be interested in Christmas. Periods of lucidity and remembrance are vital, as is making new, more recent memories. Involve your relative, friend or person you are caring for in every aspect of Christmas – Plan a Christmas shopping trip – Visit somewhere special or return to a favourite location or event if you can. The stimulation of festive displays and music is just as uplifting for someone with dementia as it is for everyone us. The Alzheimer’s Society has excellent general guidance for supporting someone with dementia at Christmas and this advice can be tailored to meet your family or carer situation. 

By being prepared and following a good routine, you can ensure your relative, friend or person you care for who is living with dementia has a safe and healthy winter.