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winter weather, dementia caregiving

Dementia Caregivers: 6 Musts for Cold Winter Weather

By Suzanne Zuppello | December 21st, 2022

Winter weather can bring depression, lethargy, trouble concentrating — and some dangerous situations, especially for those living with dementia. Here are five ways caregivers can support loved ones this season.

It’s not a coincidence that a person’s mood may drop along with the temperature in winter and early spring. The days are shorter and the weather is colder, which can make it difficult to concentrate or enjoy one’s regular activities. Research shows that the season’s negative impacts are especially true for individuals with dementia. 

“Whether it is the winter blues or depressive symptoms in a person with dementia, managing these symptoms offers an vital opportunity to improve quality of life,” Lori Nisson, director of family and community services at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and host of Dementia Untangled, a podcast for caregivers, told Being Patient.

This downturn can be a slippery slope: Studies have also shown that the likelihood of being diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia, is 30 percent higher in winter and spring than it is in summer and fall. 

“Individuals living with dementia-related illnesses are more susceptible to the dangers caused by extreme cold weather. The effects of dementia may make it harder for them to recognize temperature changes, and more susceptible to hypothermia and falls,” Alzheimer’s Foundation of America Director of Educational and Social Services Jennifer Reeder, LCSW, said in an AFA press release. “Following a few simple steps can go a long way to help family caregivers keep their loved ones with dementia safe.”

All this said, in winter weather, there are several key things family caregivers can do to help their loved ones combat the winter blues — and stay safe in the cold. Here are a few.

1. Keep an eye on the temperature

People with dementia may not always remember how to dress for the cold weather. Caregivers can help ensure their loved one is dressed in the right clothes. Layers are helpful and, when outdoors, add hats, scarves and gloves to the mix to help prevent loss of too much body heat. 

On this note, refresh your knowledge on the warning signs of hypothermia, which include shivering, sleepiness, slurred speech and loss of motor skills among other symptoms.

All that being said, while indoors, warmth is important but overheating is possible. It’s important to find a balanced temperature that’s comfortable but won’t cause a chill or, worse, cause dehydration. The ideal temperature is between 54º and 75º Fahrenheit. Keep sweaters and blankets in hand for easy access to warm up or, when taken off, to cool down.

2. Create a safe, winter-proof environment

Speaking of slips and falls, winter months bring on new challenges when it comes to safety. Snow and ice can lead to outdoor falls and accidents. If possible, installing railings and ramps outdoors can reduce the likelihood for accidents, especially if caregivers are not physically available for support — and keep stairs, walkways and driveways clear of ice and snow.

Indoors, consider avoiding space heaters and electric blankets. These items can certainly be helpful when used correctly, but forgetting to turn off the device can create a serious fire hazard or burn.

If heat in the home is an issue, use these tools only with supervision or speak with a repairperson about fixing the heating system. Some community organizations offer assistance with these types of repairs. Check neighborhood websites like Patch or call 211 and to find out if this type of help exists locally.

3. Stay active — even in colder weather

Even though it’s cold, fresh air and daylight is paramount year round. Nisson encourages walks and low impact exercise aligned with a person’s abilities — and doing these activities outdoors is even better. After all, staying active is hugely important in supporting brain health and even preserving memory function, boosting circulation, and controlling inflammation, all of which are key to slowing the progress of dementia and reducing severity of symptoms. The shift in environment from indoors to outdoors may also help boost one’s mood.

4. Eat the rainbow

A balanced, healthy diet is believed to support cognitive function in people with dementia. Staying nourished is especially important in dark, cold winter weather, which can be tough on both the body and the mind. During the winter season, Nisson recommends “a balanced diet with colorful vegetables, seasonal fruits,” and being mindful to stay hydrated.

There are plenty of nourishing, simple recipes that are also seasonally appropriate, such as stews with hearty root vegetables that are rich in vitamins but gentle on most systems. 

5. Don’t shut out the world

Creating opportunities for socializing in winter can be hard, but isn’t impossible — especially now with the popularity of virtual programming. Being around people decreases loneliness and supports a positive mood, and while Nisson suggests that in-person connecting is best, she understands it’s not always possible based on someone’s access and abilities. Local libraries often advertise classes with in-person and virtual options. Signing up for one not only supports a person’s emotional health through human connection, but it also offers a sense of purpose and structure — something that can be especially helpful for people living with dementia and their caregivers.

6. Be prepared for emergencies

First, if you hear bad winter weather is on the way, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America adds to be sure food and water supplies are well stocked, cell phones, computers, tablets and other communication devices are charged, and that flashlights (not candles), blankets and warm clothing are easily easy to find if the power goes out.

Have a back-up plan for at-home care in the event weather impacts travel and access. “Inquire with your loved one’s home care provider about what the backup or contingency plans are to deliver services, or extend their hours to cover the projected period of the extreme weather conditions,” the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America recommends. Should things get even more hairy, be sure to have the emergency contact phone numbers for your local police department, fire department and utility providers on hand. Licensed experts are available to talk through concerns via the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s AFA Helpline by phone (866-232-8484), text message (646-586-5283), or web chat.

Spring is right around the corner

Follow this guidance to help make the darkest season a little brighter. If symptoms or depressive moods continue to worsen, talk to a doctor, as there could be something more to consider.

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