In colder climates, winter is a time when we hunker down to face the elements — or make plans to escape them.
Snow blocks roads, sub-zero temperatures rupture pipes, and freezing winds take out power and telephone lines. When the weather outside is frightful, staying indoors is often the safest course.
That’s doubly true for older people, for whom a fall on the ice or a heating failure can be life-threatening.
What’s more, winter is a time when many people vacation in warmer climes. That sometimes means creating greater distance than usual from elderly loved ones who can’t come along.
For your peace of mind and theirs, what should you do to make sure your parents are protected from the worst conditions winter can create?
We spoke to experts to assemble a list of winterizing and safety tips that will help see your parents through this season of lower temperatures.
1. Walk this way (safely)
Put your best foot forward when making a home safe in the winter: Ensure any outdoor walkways and stairwells are kept clear of ice and debris and are safe to walk on.
That means regular salting to melt the inevitable icy sheen, and shoveling early and often when it snows.
That kind of heavy work puts tremendous strain on hearts and lungs, and it’s simply too much for most older people to handle. If you’re not nearby and up to the physical challenge yourself, paying for a snow-removal service makes a great gift.
2. Heat well, heat safe
According to the National Institutes of Health, older people are at special risk when exposed to low temperatures: “Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. With advancing age, the body’s ability to endure long periods of exposure to cold is lowered.”
Staying warm is obviously a priority, but it shouldn’t create any hazards in the home. Here are some specifics to look out for.
Space heaters should have automatic shut-off switches, non-glowing elements, and should be kept away from flammable materials. Don’t let Mom or Dad put them too close to the bed, or curtains, or the pile of old newspapers turning yellow from age in the corner. And don’t let them place a space heaters on high surfaces or near water.
If your parents have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, make sure it has proper ventilation to the outside to avoid smoke and exhaust inside, along with proper grate to protect from the actual fire and embers.
Oh, and remember: Never leave candles unattended. Not on a table, not on a shelf, and — holy holidays! — definitely not on a tree.
Meanwhile, check your parents’ fire and smoke alarms to make sure they work and have fresh batteries.
3. Maintain furnaces
You wouldn’t leave your car on the street, unused, for seven or eight months, then crank it up and immediately start drag racing down the nearest boulevard, would you?
Getting your furnace serviced, changing the filter, and slowly acclimating it back into a rhythm is the way to go.
Dave Gosling, vice president of Enercare Inc., an HVAC company that specializes in heating and cooling, recommended giving some TLC to your furnace before winter’s cold winds strike, to save having to do more serious work later on.
“Similar to getting your car tuned up and oil changed, your furnace requires the same level of maintenance to get ahead of minor issues before they become costly and inconvenient breakdowns,” he told us. “By testing your furnace before the cold weather hits, you are able to address any concerns ahead of time and ensure that you are comfortable all season long.”
Checking the furnace couldn’t be simpler, according to Gosling:
“Testing your furnace is quick and easy — simply turn the thermostat up and your furnace on for at least 15 minutes. If your vents are blowing warm air and you don’t hear any strange noises, your furnace is likely in good shape! If you experience irregularities once your furnace is running, turn off the unit immediately, and contact a licensed professional.”
4. Improve insulation for the long term
Insulation keeps the cold air out and the warm air in. The trick is choosing between easier, cheaper options that may work for short sprints and investing more money in longer-term solutions.
Windows need to be insulated and doors should fit as well as possible into the frames to seal off cracks and gaps.
Paul Farmer, vice president of marketing for Riverwood Cabins, has simple advice for windows.
“Your best bet for insulating windows is to upgrade all of your windows to either double or triple pane windows.”
While that may not be feasible economically, it’s worth considering major insulation upgrades if your parents are entering a period of life in which you’re confident they’ll be in the same house or apartment for years.
Having well-insulated windows and tight-fitting doors will cut down on drafts drastically, but don’t overlook drafts that can be coming up from the basement or down through the roof.
Matthias Alleckna, energy expert at EnergyRates.ca, put it this way:
“Winterizing your home should be seen as an investment, not an expenditure. These home improvements may cost some money upfront, but they will provide you with money savings in the long term, as you will start receiving reduced energy bills, meaning that you will see a lot of your money coming back in energy savings.”
5. Invest in a ‘smart thermostat’ system
Smart thermostats are more common than ever. They perform like traditional programmable thermostats but enhanced features support WiFi connectivity to heating and cooling options and provide more information about energy use.
They’re also designed to be easier to use and more efficient than a typical thermostat — both valuable for older users.
6. Close off unused rooms
Rooms that aren’t being used shouldn’t be hogging heat and energy from rooms that are. Close the vents and doors of the unused rooms, plug the spaces under the door, and if possible re-direct or prevent heat from going on in the room. It saves energy and keeps the rest of the house warmer.
7. Wear more warm clothing
This tried-and-true strategy dates back to the first time a caveperson put an extra buffalo hide over their legs at night. You can never go wrong with another pair of socks on your feet or blanket on your shoulders.
8. Keep the heat as high as they want it
Why do older people blast the heat?
Feeling colder is a natural part of aging, as metabolism slows, circulation becomes less efficient, and skin loses its elasticity.
If it’s not beyond their means or yours, your parents may simply want to keep the heat up around 80 degrees, literally pay the price, and call it a day.
9. Look for senior rates and home-improvement rebates
If some of these solutions sound pricey, take heart: Discounts and rebates may help your folks afford more-efficient insulation methods and heating.
“Seniors can look for rebate programs from governmental agencies or local utility companies,” Alleckna said. “Many institutions offer rebates for energy-efficient home improvements, including insulation fixes and smart thermostats. Also, many companies provide seniors with discounted rates, so it’s worth it reviewing your gas and electricity options to make sure that you’re paying for the best energy rates in the market as a senior.”
Making sure you account for your parents’ safety and warmth might take a few extra days of prep and some cash here and there, but it will go a long way to ensuring they emerge in good health from winter’s grip.