Preparing Our Seniors for the Winter Chill

Autumn in New England

Even though the past week has felt more like summer than the first week of autumn, those who live in New England know that weather conditions here can change rapidly. In the coming weeks, the humid 80 degree weather we have been experiencing will be replaced by a frosty chill and the vibrant colors of the changing leaves.

Already, pumpkins are beginning to show up everywhere, from coffee shops to bakeries and even on front steps heralding the onset of autumn and not far behind, the holidays. There will soon be no doubt that another fall season is upon us, and for our seniors, it’s time to help them prepare for the first winds of winter to blow in.

One of the first things that should be done is to check on the heating system. For most homes, the heater needs an annual cleaning and evaluation to make sure it is running efficiently and properly. This includes changing the filters and making sure that there are no blockages in the ventilation system – both inside and out.

Over the spring and summer, small animals may have used the chimney to build nests, thereby clogging the exhaust. Checking the chimney is simple but important.

Checking Smoke Detectors

Next move on to the smoke detectors. Most of us know that the irritating chirping sound means its time to replace the batteries, but did you know that the detectors must also be replaced every ten years?

Here’s how to find out if your smoke detector needs to be replaced:

  • Remove the smoke detector from the ceiling.

  • Look on the back of the device for the date of manufacture.

  • Remember that smoke detectors should be replaced 10 years from the date of manufacture.

  • If it’s less than 10 years old, put the smoke detector back on the ceiling or wall.

FEMA also recommends testing the batteries on your smoke detectors at least once a month. Simply push the test button and make sure your alarms sound when tested. If they do not sound when tested, they need to be replaced.

The same is true for Carbon Monoxide detectors. They should be replaced every 5 to 7 years. The detecting components will lose their effectiveness after that time and may no longer detect carbon monoxide. A prominent CO detector manufacturer, First Alert, states: “After 5 years any detector should be replaced with a new CO alarm.”

Again, remove the device and check the expiration date on the back or the date of manufacturing. If more than five years old or expired, replace it.

If a senior uses portable electric heaters to warm up those hard to heat areas of the house, make sure they are clean and the wires are not frayed or loose. Also check the areas that these devices will be used in to make sure there are no fire hazards present.

Safe Space for Portable Heaters

Buildups of paper or clothing can be potential fuel for a portable heater fire so clear out plenty of space. A good rule of thumb for clearance around a portable heater is three feet or more.

Many seniors also use antiquated space heaters that don’t have a shut-off switch should that heater tip. Buy a new one with up to date safety features that shut the unit down if it is knocked over.

Finally, remind your loved one not to leave the heater on if it is going to be left unattended. Better yet, buy one with a timer that can be set should they fall asleep and forget to turn it off.

The bad news this heating season is that electric rates are expected to skyrocket, in some cases nearly 30%. The good news is that there are some things you can do to help seniors save on their heating costs while making some free home improvements if they qualify.

The United States Department of Energy provides eligible households with full-scale home energy efficiency services called the Low-Income Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). This program is administered by local agencies, usually those that also provide heating and fuel assistance.

Priority service is given to those households with elderly, disabled, children 6 and under, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) homes (commonly known as fuel assistance recipients), and native Americans. Eligibility is based on a maximum gross income that does not exceed 60% of your states Estimated Median Income. Those on TAFDC or SSI are presumed to be automatically eligible.

Typical weatherization activities may include:

  • Air sealing to reduce infiltration

  • Attic insulation

  • Sidewall installation

  • Floor insulation

  • Pipe and/or duct insulation

  • Limited energy related repairs

Homes also receive a thorough evaluation of the heating system as well as health and safety testing of all combustible appliances. Local licensed and insured private-sector weatherization contractors complete the work at no cost to the residents. Homeowners and tenants, with their landlord’s permission, are eligible.

To find out if you are eligible for this benefit and how to apply in your state, please click on the link below and when you arrive at the site, click on the state you live in.

Qualifying for weatherization or fuel assistance.

Also make sure there are plenty of back-up ways to stay warm. Here in New England, a Nor’easter can knock out power for days if not weeks. Make sure your loved one has a supply of blankets, gloves and coat in case of such an occurrence.

Have a supply of canned food available that does not require heating and make sure there is a manual can opener available.

Check the medicine cabinet to insure there are supplies should a senior become ill. Tylenol and other over the counter products should be in place – and make sure these items do not interact with any prescription medication. Also make sure that they have had their flu shot. Although the shot may not prevent them from contracting the flu, it does lessen its severity.

A supply of paper products should be in place such as paper towels, toilet and facial tissues. Several gallons of water need to be put aside in case of an emergency and a battery powered radio and flashlight needs to be available. Of course, make sure you also have a supply of batteries for them.

Earlier, I wrote about the vibrant colors of the changing leaves. Unfortunately, as beautiful as they are, they also fall to the ground and become a slipping hazard for seniors and can clog the gutters and spouts of their homes leading to leaks and roof damage.

Make sure you plan to keep the pathways and stairs clean to reduce the chance of falls. Besides the falling leaves, those who have experieinced New England mornings also know that the fall months come with mist and fog, making the ground even more treacherous. A fall for a senior can lead to life threatening implications. It’s better to prevent a fall than to deal with the aftermath.

After the trees have given up their final leaves, clean the gutters out for your loved one or hire a reputable contractor to do it for them.

So, we have discussed the physical risks, but there are also emotional risks for our seniors. Colder weather means social isolation and in many cases that can lead to depression. Make sure they have something to keep them occupied.

Senior Center Activities

The best thing to do is to have them join a local senior center. Not only does this help them stay busy, focused and mentally alert, it acts as another set of eyes for you as the staff at those locations can inform you if your loved one is sick or behaving differently. Many senior centers have transportation to and from the facility and serve lunch and snacks.

If joining a senior center is not a possibility, find out what hobbies they enjoy and buy them some materials. Consider getting them up to date with computers and social media so they can stay in touch – and don’t forget to call and check in on them. It is also helpful to have the phone number of a neighbor so they can check on them if you have immediate concerns.

I hope you find this information helpful. The risks that come with the cold weather can be minimized for our seniors if we plan ahead.

Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.

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