Teepa’s Tips for Helping A Person Living with Dementia Who Feels Cold

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By Valerie FeurichSeptember 8th, 2021

Teepa’s Tips for Helping A Person Living with Dementia Who Feels Cold

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Trying to Offer Comfort
By Valerie Feurich
Have you ever felt terribly hot, while a person living with dementia near you was freezing? The person may have even had perspiration on their head or forehead, but was still telling you that they felt cold.

It is very common for people living in the mid to later stages of dementia to feel cold. As a care partner, it can be confusing when you’re sweating, but the person in your care says they’re feeling chilly.

So, what can you do to make the person feel comfortable when the room is already hot and they may be wearing multiple layers of clothing? To help you help them, let’s start with why they’re feeling cold.
How Dementia Affects A Person’s Temperature Regulation
Human beings have a system within the core of their brain called autoregulation, which regulates core blood flow, blood flow into the periphery, and other important physical tasks. As dementia attacks the brain and causes chemical and physical changes, it also affects the person’s autoregulation system.

In addition, as human beings age, they lose subcutaneous fat, which is the padding under the skin of a person’s extremities, such as arms and legs. When this happens, the blood vessels are now right below the surface of their skin, and therefore more exposed to outside temperatures.

Now, imagine a person living with dementia sitting in a room at maybe 74 degrees Fahrenheit, which is below the normal human body’s temperature of around 98.6 degrees. With the person’s autoregulation system having been damaged by dementia, the brain now tries to protect the body’s core by constricting the blood vessels of the person’s extremities, such as their hands, feet, or up to their knees or elbows. It’s going to make those areas colder to keep the warm blood flow in the body’s core.

This, in turn, will make their hands and feet feel cold, which makes the person feel like they need to warm up. Your person living with dementia may feel like they need another layer of clothing when, in reality, the coldness is in their extremities. So, putting on another shirt, sweater, or pair of pants will not solve the issue and can cause overheating of the core as the autoregulation system is damaged and no longer expands the blood flow out to the hands and feet.

Why being notoriously cold can cause further harm
Heat can be very dangerous to the elderly. It can be serious and lead to almost immediate consequences when not quickly addressed. But how about the cold? Can it lead to further damage if not properly addressed? The unfortunate answer is yes.

While less risky than heat, when a person living with dementia is frequently cold, they’ll be less likely to want to do things, and less likely to want to move their hands and feet. Abilities they still have may deteriorate at a faster rate, as they’re no longer using them.

When feeling cold, a person living with dementia may also curl up and hide. The curled posture may lead to an increased risk for falls. You may see the person clasping things, or closing their hands more. This in turn can lead to contractures,  which are closed hands they can no longer open.

What you can do to help
When a person living with dementia feels cold even though the room is a commonly considered to be at a comfortable temperature, adding gentle warmth to their extremities can help.

Something like a gently warmed rice or bean sock or offering a warm cup might help. By providing warmth to the hands and feet, the blood vessels will start to relax and the blood will start to flow more openly into those areas. As some of the blood begins to circulate back from the core into the arms and legs, it’ll help the person feel more comfortable again.

Unfortunately, this warmth isn’t going to last, so you may want to consider offering things episodically that are warm, can be held, and can be manipulated. However, make sure to always follow safety precautions and follow temperature checks. Be extremely cautious about using things like a heating pad that could get too hot, as an older person’s loss of the fat layer below the skin of their extremities makes them highly vulnerable to injury. Similar to how you’d heat-check an item for an infant, consider laying the object on yourself for a while to better determine whether this item could get too hot.

Consider warming a towel in the dryer and, when not too hot anymore, laying it across the person’s feet. You might be able to watch the person relax as the warmth sets in, as it is giving them that much-needed circulation.
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Interested in learning even more on this topic? Listen to Teepa talk on this subject in episode #109 of her Dementia Care Partner Talk Show Podcast:

5 Comments on “Teepa’s Tips for Helping A Person Living with Dementia Who Feels Cold”

  1. Great article, but hat , scarf and gloves are also helpful for that cold person, especially a wool cap for a bald man!

  2. Thanks for the information Valerie, my mom has recently started doing this (saying she is cold all of the time, even when it is 80 degrees and more). This explains why and what can help.

  3. Great explanation. Thank you. Now I know why mom’s hands are always so cold. Besides providing something warm as you suggested, would walking around help to warm her up?

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