It’s already the first week of October and time to begin preparing for the fast approaching winter chill. Given that, the weather here in the Northeastern part of the United States isn’t exactly giving us a preview of winter – more like a review of summer, but we know all too well how quickly things can change. In the coming weeks, the humid 80-degree weather will be quickly replaced by a frosty chill and the vibrant colors of the changing leaves.
In mid-September, we knew that the seasons were changing as pumpkins began to show up everywhere, from coffee shops to bakeries and even on front steps heralding the onset of autumn and with it, a reminder that the holidays are just around the corner.
But...we are getting ahead of ourselves. It's time once again to think about our seniors and preparing them for the winter weather and making sure their apartments and homes are safe and everything inside is in good working order. Let's get started with a discussion of winter weather alerts so seniors understand what is being broadcast on radio and television.
Winter Weather Alerts
Winter Weather Advisories are issued when snow, blowing snow, ice, sleet, or a combination of these wintry elements is expected but conditions should not be hazardous enough to meet Warning criteria. Be prepared for winter driving conditions and possible travel difficulties. Use caution when driving, walking and engaging in outside activities.
Winter Storm Watches are issued when conditions are favorable for a significant winter storm event. Heavy sleet, heavy snow, ice storms, blowing snow, or a combination of these events are possible.
Winter Storm Warnings are issued for a significant winter weather event including snow, ice, sleet, blowing snow, or a combination of these hazards. Travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. Delay your travel plans until conditions improve. When a warning is issued, make sure you are prepared for the worst. We will discuss preparations a bit later.
A Blizzard Warning means that the following conditions are occurring or expected within the next 12 to 18 hours. 1) Snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to 1/4 mile or less for 3 hours or longer. AND. 2) Sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater.
Check 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. A buildup of debris is not only a fire hazard but also a carbon monoxide danger.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide 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 that if the device is more than five years old, it needs to be replaced. Again, remove the device and check the expiration date on the back or the date of manufacturing.
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.
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 Cost of Heating a Home
Most seniors are on a fixed income and a colder than normal winter can rapidly
run up the heating bills. The good news is that there are some things you can do to help seniors save on their heating costs by 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
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.
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.
We all know that ice and snow are dangerous to walk on, especially for seniors. But there are also other hazards of the season that can have health implications for our older loved ones.
Earlier, we 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 experienced 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 have life threatening implications. It’s better to prevent a fall than to deal with the aftermath.
Then we come to our pets. Pets for seniors are important in so many ways and they must also be taken into consideration as the cold approaches.
The ASPCA offers these tips on keeping pets safe in the harsh weather.
Stock up on pet food and medicines your animals may need, as winter storms can take out power, close roads and even trap you in your home.
If you evacuate, take your pets with you. Never leave your pets behind or tether them to poles or trees, which prevents them from escaping high waters and getting to safe areas.
Make sure all pets are wearing ID tags with up-to-date contact information.
Never leave your pet outside during a snowstorm, and consider giving short-haired or smaller dogs a coat and booties to wear during walks to protect them from the elements and cold temperatures. Realize that if it's too cold for you, it's too cold for your pet.
Thoroughly wipe off your dog’s paws and belly with a moist washcloth after going outside. Snow-melting salt can be very painful to dogs’ feet and cause illness if ingested. Clumps of snow can accumulate between toes and cause pain, as well.
Know that, during the winter, outdoor cats sometimes seek shelter underneath cars. Bang loudly on the car hood before starting the engine to give cats a chance to escape.
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.
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.
We hope you find this information helpful. The risks that come with the cold weather can be minimized for our seniors if we plan ahead. Please feel free to click on our free handout below (Winter Safety Tips for Seniors), download and print it.
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.