Preparing Our Seniors for Winter

It's hard to believe but we are nearly into mid-October and the cold weather is knocking on the door. The upper mid-west has already experienced two major storms and according to all long-range forecasts, the winter weather for the Northeast is predicted to be colder and snowier than average.

But we knew this was coming, right? What is more of a predictor of the cold than the coffee shops advertising pumpkin spice in everything from lattes to donuts. And we can't forget the apple smells wafting from bakeries as they churn out delicious cider muffins and cakes and we all know what's next -- the holidays!

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 our annual discussion of safety for seniors as the winter approaches.

Winter Weather Alerts

Every winter, we are bombarded by television meteorologists with warnings, advisories, watches, etc. to a point of confusion and even panic. Just the mention of that four-letter word that starts with an "S" and ends with a "W" sends southern New Englanders to the store for the old staples - bread, milk, and water. Although we make fun of this every time it happens, for seniors, a major storm can be a life-threatening event so it is important that they and we understand exactly what winter weather warnings mean.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Thermostats should also be checked to be sure they are in working order or in the case of newer models, programmed correctly. And for the newer models, if the heating system is set to go on or off at certain hours, when the time changes back to standard time, thermostats also need to be adjusted as well.

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.

Portable Heaters

If a senior utilizes 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 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, the 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.

Storm Preparedness

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 coats 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 ensure 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 and encourage your loved one to get the 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 need to be available. Of course, make sure you also have a supply of batteries for them.

Slipping Hazards

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. One of the joys of living in New England is watching the leaves turn vibrant colors of red and orange, but as beautiful as they are, there is also a danger they present.

These leaves 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. To prevent a fall from happening, keep the pathways and stairs clean to reduce the chances of an accident. And for those who have experienced New England mornings also know that the fall months come with mist and fog, making the ground even more treacherous and add a cool morning and a light frost on top of these leaves, well, it's an accident waiting to happen.

Remember, 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. Remember, 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 these facilities can inform you if your loved one is sick or behaving differently. Many senior centers also 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 look in 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.

Don Drake oversees Connelly Law's Community Education Programming. He is a retired licensed clinician in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with over three decades of experience working with older adults diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, substance abuse disorders, chronic homeless and mental illness. Prior to his retirement, he was the director of a unique treatment program for older adults with histories of mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and addiction at Shattuck Hospital in Boston. He was also a director at Steppingstone, Inc. in Fall River, Massachusetts where he was the clinical trainer, program and curriculum developer for the agency and oversaw treatment programming for older adults. He has over 40 years of human service and law enforcement experience and has worked as an administrator at programs in Boston, Hartford, Providence and Philadelphia, helping to structure, hire and train staff in providing behavioral and addictions treatments to adolescent and adult clients. Drake also worked as a trainer for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health presenting training on QPR, a suicide prevention curriculum for the general public, the Massachusetts Council for Problem Gambling and the Crisis Prevention Institute, an international training organization that specializes in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behaviors. He is also a retired professional wrestler who is in the New England Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Drake can be reached at Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. at

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