Weather affects most of us in one way or another. Perhaps we feel energetic when it’s sunny and sluggish on overcast days. And no one likes being stuck in a hot car or a freezing movie theater. Alzheimer’s and dementia can affect the brain’s control centers, resulting in increased sensitivity to heat and cold.
A 2018 research study followed 3,300 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the United States, France, and Canada. The results demonstrated that cognitive (thinking) ability changed depending on the season. It appeared to be higher in the fall and summer, when days are longer and sunnier. People experienced more episodes of sun downing (an escalation in anger, irritation, and confusion occurring late afternoon or evening) during winter and early spring. They also had more sleep-pattern disturbances and depression during shorter, darker days.
As the weather starts to get colder, winter can be a particularly difficult time for somebody living with dementia. The bad weather and colder temperatures can bring specific challenges, and can sometimes make symptoms temporarily worse. What’s more, people with dementia aren’t always able to communicate the fact they’re cold – or they may not even recognize it themselves.
Here are a couple ways to support someone who has dementia through the cold months:
Make sure they are dressed appropriately for the weather.
People with dementia won’t always remember to dress appropriately for colder weather, so it’s important to help make sure they’re wearing the right clothes. Layers are key to keeping warm, and the best materials for maintaining body heat are cotton, wool, or fleecy materials. If you’re going outside, remember that a lot of heat is lost through the head and neck, so make sure the person has a hat and scarf on. Gloves are also important for keeping hands warm. If it’s icy or snowy, make sure the person is wearing appropriate footwear, such as non-skid boots.
Encourage regular movement
Keeping active can help to boost circulation and help keep someone with dementia warm. It’s a good idea to encourage the person to move around at least once an hour. If walking is difficult or extreme weather conditions make it hard to go outside, simply getting the person to move their arms and legs, or wiggling their toes can be helpful!
Make the most of natural daylight
Decreased sunlight can cause someone with dementia to feel increased anxiety, confusion, and even depression during the winter. You can help by making sure they’re exposed to natural daylight when possible. Get outside when you can – a quick walk around the block or even just sitting outside in the garden for a few minutes can do wonders. At home, make sure curtains are open during the day to let in as much light as possible. You could also position the furniture so that the person with dementia is sitting near a window. As natural light starts to fade, make sure lights and lamps are turned on.
Know their limits
Although spending a little time outside is encouraged as long as they are dressed appropriately, some of those with dementia absolutely, 100%, do NOT want to go outside, and can become very agitated if you keep pushing. If they are really set on not going outside, find other ways to get them sunlight or their bodies moving. Do a puzzle by the window or take a walk around the house.
Encourage consistent eating and drinking
Keeping warm uses up a lot of energy, and a warm house can increase the risk of dehydration. It’s important to make sure someone with dementia is eating regular meals and drinking enough fluid during the winter. Snacking throughout the day can help keep energy levels up, and hot drinks can help keep them warm. They should avoid drinking alcohol as it makes you feel warm, but actually draws important heat away from vital organs.
Coping with colder weather and staying active with dementia. Alzheimer Society of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://alzheimer.ca/en/help-support/im-caring-person-living-dementia/ensuring-safety-security/help-people-living-dementia
7 ways to support a person with dementia in cold weather. Alzheimer’s Society. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/blog/how-support-somebody-living-dementia-cold-weather