With winter in full swing, the cold weather is showing no sign of stopping any time soon.
When it comes to dealing with the chill, there are a number of issues that can arise.
From staying warm, to preparing your home without running up the energy bill too high, winter presents a number of challenges. The Reporter spoke with a number of experts in various fields on the subject.
SENIORS AT RISK
During winter months, the cold can affect the elderly more than others.
Dr. Shirley Newell, chief medical officer at Aegis Living based in Redmond, said there are a number of factors that could leave seniors more vulnerable in the winter time.
In general, she said, most people younger than a certain age, their bodies can compensate for the cold. But that is not the case with the elderly. Newell said their metabolism is slower, they tend to have a lower body fat and they are not able to shiver, which helps keep the body warm.
On top of that, she said, seniors also have medical issues such as diabetes or heart disease. They are also less active — either because they have a disablity or are sedentary. Newell noted that moving around helps us keep warm.
Seniors also don’t always realize their body temperature has dropped and sometimes, certain medications can affect their body temperature, she said.
In addition, Newell said some seniors may be living on a fixed income or are just more aware of their expenses and as a way to keep energy costs low, they may turn down their thermostat.
Newell advised for seniors, or for people who have seniors living with them, to keep the thermostat at 68 degrees or warmer. She said they should also keep extra blankets and sweaters within reach and for seniors to wear socks and even hats at all times. Wearing multiple layers of clothing also helps. And if a senior’s heating source is a wood-burning stove, they should make sure their wood supply is stocked, Newell said.
For those who may have an elderly loved one who does not live nearby, Newell said there are some things they can do if they are worried about them. She said knowing what resources are in their community — such as the police and or fire department, a local church or other groups — can help. Newell said they can also hire a home-care service to check on their loved one, adding that nothing beats a site visit as people sometimes think their relative is doing better than they really are.
Seniors should also limit their time outdoors, she said. People with senior citizens in their lives could offer to run errands for them. And if the senior must go outside, Newell advised warming up the car before they enter.
Mike Hilley, director of emergency medical services for the Redmond Fire Department (RFD), also encouraged residents to look in on each other if they have an elderly neighbor.
On Jan. 5, he said RFD responded to a call in which an elderly woman had gone outside on her front porch and fell. Hilley said the woman was not planning on being outside long and was not dressed for the cold, but ended up outside for a number of hours. She was not in a visible part of the property and it wasn’t until a neighbor came by and saw her that she received medical attention. Hilley said the woman was taken to the hospital and while she is fine, she is still in the hospital.
If you suspect someone is hypothermic, which means their body temperature is below 95 degrees, Newell said to get them medical help immediately.
KEEPING ALL AGES WARM
Another demographic that may be more vulnerable during the winter months are kids.
Brad Younggren, medical director and emergency physician at EvergreenHealth in Redmond and Kirkland, said kids have a higher risk of hypothermia because they are not as equipped to make decisions.
Younggren advised that kids wear hats as they have a larger surface area on their heads and lose more body heat through their heads, compared to adults. He said good clothing and limiting prolonged exposure are also important when it comes to lowering kids’ risks of hypothermia.
From his experience working in an emergency department, Younggren said people should also take into account the wind chill, as that causes people to lose heat faster.
Another way a person could lose heat faster is through alcohol consumption. Younggren said this is because alcohol dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow to the skin, which loses heat rapidly.
SIDE EFFECTS FROM THE COLD
While there has been an uptick in primary cases at EvergreenHealth such as hypothermia due to the cold, Younggren said they have also seen a huge rise in what he calls secondary effects. These are cases that include people injuring themselves from slipping on ice. He said their orthopedic department sees more patients with wrist injuries or head injuries — and hip and spine injuries in the elderly — from falls during this time of year.
Hilley said first responders have also seen more secondary-type calls from people slipping around on the ice.
He noted that Tuesday was particular busy, beginning around 3 a.m.
“There were multiple calls for fall patients,” Hilley said. “Most of the calls were for people who were walking to the bus stop or out to their cars in the driveways.”
Crews have also responded to multiple minor vehicle collisions due to ice on the ground.
“The unpredictability of the ice conditions caught many people by surprise,” Hilley said. “While this isn’t an unusual winter, the overnight freezing conditions with variable wet roadways were hard to predict.”
RFD was also affected by the icy conditions. Hilley said an early morning medical call on Tuesday was complicated by ice on the roadway and a steep hill. The aid unit was not able to go up the hill, so a supervisor in a four-wheel drive vehicle went to the home and brought the patient down to the aid unit, he said.
“We haven’t been overwhelmed with calls but there is definitely a huge increase of weather-associated calls as well as minor injuries due to various falls and minor vehicle accidents,” Hilley said.
KEEPING COSTS DOWN
A large part of staying warm is just staying indoors. But with the heat running constantly, energy costs can go up.
Ben Pelkey, a manager of the energy advisory team at Puget Sound Energy (PSE), has offered some tips on how to keep costs low.
The increase in energy usage and, as a result, energy costs, comes from an increased heat load. Pelkey said January is typically customers’ highest or second highest bill.
The main way to reduce cost is to reduce usage, meaning bring the thermostat temperature down to the lowest tolerable temparture while you are home, Pelkey said.
“That’s really the only way,” he said about reducing energy costs.
Pelkey said electric blankets can help at night. He also advised wearing warmer clothing so you can turn the temperature down.
A good base temperature to set the thermostat at is 68 degrees fahrenheit while at home and awake. Lowering the thermostat 10-15 degrees for eight hours overnight can save customers up to 10 percent on their heating.
Pelkey added that there are heating systems and cell phone apps that allow people to turn their heat on and off even if they are not home and program their heat to turn on before they get home.
In homes with baseboard heaters, Pelkey said people should turn those off in unoccupied rooms and to close the door.
There are also ways to keep the heat inside longer, he said, such as checking for air leaks and cold air infiltration. Pelkey said there are also weather-stripping and air-sealing kits people can purchase at the hardware store to help their homes stay warm.
KEEPING WARM AND SAFE
Staying warm may be a priority but there are also some safety precautions residents should take.
Hilley said using alternative heating sources such as grills or hibachis or sources that use propane can lead to carbon-monoxide exposure. He said RFD has not seen many of these types of calls, but it is still “a real concern of (theirs).”
He said faulty furnaces can also lead to exposure and he recommends residents install a carbon-monoxide detector in their home.
Younggren said they have also seen people coming into the emergency room with headaches that have been caused by carbon-monoxide exposure in closed spaces.
Another important part about keeping a home warm is keeping the pipes warm and insulated.
Pelkey advised residents set their thermostat temperature to at least 55 degrees fahrenheit when they are not home to make sure their pipes don’t burst.
Hilley said RFD has also responded to calls for this in addition to injuries caused by the cold.
“The cold has presented different challenges,” he said.
THE EXTRA VULNERABLE
While for most people, staying warm may be as simple as going home and turning on the heat, for some it is not as simple.
Derek Wentorf, director of youth homeless services for Friends of Youth, said the Landing, the shelter serving young adults from 18-24, has been at or close to capacity this winter.
He said the shelter has beds for up to 20 people and they have been averaging 18-19 clients per night. About 25 percent of the time, they have had more than 20 people show up and have had to hold a lotto to decide who can stay.
Wentorf added that if someone is “lotto-ed out” one night, they are guaranteed a spot at the shelter the next day.
For shelter clients who are not able to spend the night, Wentorf said they ask the individual if they would like them to contact another shelter. They are also given food and a bus pass, he said.