It’s already the third 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 seventy-degree weather will be quickly replaced by a frosty chill and the vibrant colors of the changing leaves will have passed as they now litter the ground.
In mid-September, we knew that the seasons were changing as pumpkins began to show up everywhere, from coffee shops to bakeries and on the front steps of homes heralding the onset of autumn and with it, a reminder that the holidays are rapidly approaching.
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," said certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. "This process is important especially this winter as many homes were not able to have these safety checks during the past year due to the COVID lockdown."
Check the Heating System
For most homes, the heater needs an annual cleaning and evaluation to make sure it is running efficiently. 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 system. 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, place 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 are responsible for over 30 percent of house fires and 80 percent of home fire deaths. 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 state's 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.
This year it is especially important as the current economic climate is not favorable for those on a fixed income. According to the Energy Information Administration's "Winter Fuels Outlook," nearly half of U.S. households heat their homes with natural gas, and they will pay 30% more on average this winter, while homes warmed with electricity will pay 6% more. The report states that it will cost $746 on average to heat homes with natural gas this winter, while those who use electric heat may be spending around $1,268 on their electricity bills this season, according to the report.
Those who warm their homes with heating oil or propane can expect those costs to be even higher. Heating oil users will pay 43% more on average than they did last winter, while propane users will pay 54% more. So finding ways to save energy is more important than ever this year.
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.
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.
Also, make sure there are plenty of backup ways to stay warm. Here in New England, a Nor’easter can knock out power for days if not weeks at a time. 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. 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 such as paper towels, bathroom, and facial tissues should be available. 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.
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.
Emotional Health During Winter
The best thing to do is to have them join a local senior center if they are open following the COVID restrictions. 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.