As we sail into mid-September, we have already experienced the first taste of cool weather as in some areas overnight lows dipped into the 40s with daytime highs struggling to get out of the mid-60s. Although we will still have a few warm stretches coming up, for the most part, we are rapidly descending into the fall with summer in the rear-view mirror and winter visible ahead and coming up fast.
Suffice it to say, 2020 has been a year without compare. During the spring and summer, many seniors have contractors in to repair the damages to their homes caused by the ravages of the previous winter, Roof repairs are done, gutters are cleaned out in anticipation of leaf clogs and ice-jams, furnaces are checked and batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are changed.
Unfortunately, with the pandemic leading to lockdowns and service call back-ups, much of this work was not done and those who need the help have been on hold as providers are working on a lengthy list of waiting customers. Just as the lockdown has led to seniors not getting regular medical check-ups resulting in deadly outcomes for some, so will be the results of those unable to get regular maintenance done on their property, leading to continued damage, fire hazards, and attempts to do the work themselves resulting in injuries. So it is more important now than ever to help an elderly neighbor or loved one prepare for the winter season. Let’s go through a list of what should be done.
Check the Heating System
One of the first things 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. Again, because of the pandemic and overworked contractors, if you cannot get your chimney checked, do not make a fire in the fireplace. It could lead to noxious gases entering the house or a house fire. Safety first.
Smoke and CO 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, then it's appropriate to 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 (CO) 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.
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.
Saving Energy and Money
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 the 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.
Staying Safe in an Emergency
Finally, 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 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, especially with the coronavirus still expected to be active.
A supply of paper products should be available 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. To read more, click on the photo below.
Leaves Are Slippery, Too
With the autumn season comes the beauty of the vibrant displays of changing leaves, which soon die and fall to the ground. Unfortunately, as beautiful as they are, they also present as a slipping hazard for seniors and 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 lead to life-threatening implications. It’s better to prevent a fall than to deal with the aftermath.
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 due to closures as a result on the pandemic, 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.
What Will Winter Bring?
As we all know, long term forecasts are not all that reliable. Direct Weather, a private group, issued its outlook for this winter. Their forecast calls for above-average snowfall in the Pacific Northwest, some of the Intermountain West including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, and the northeast. These regions will likely receive above average snowfall due to the La Niña pattern that is predicted to be in effect this winter.
And what about the Farmers Almanac, the go-to source of "accuracy" for decades (not)? According to them, the Mid-Atlantic region will be “seasonably cold, wet and white,” capped by a February blizzard, according to the 2021 edition of the Almanac.
Noting the “winter wild card” for winter 2020-21 “belongs to areas around the Tennessee and lower Ohio River valleys, north, and east up through New England… which will see a mix of intense weather systems that will keep delivering a wintry mix of rainy, icy and/or snowy weather throughout the season.” And then during the second week of February, the almanac forecasts “a blizzard bringing 1-2 feet of snow along the eastern seaboard".
Although we are presenting this weather information, do not rely upon it. As always, prepare for the worse and you will always be ready. Remember, the risks that come with the cold weather can be minimized for our seniors if we plan ahead.