Cold weather prompts extra help for the elderly
On a day when even some garbage collectors refused to go out, Murrysville Meals on Wheels delivered 60 meals to its mostly elderly clientele Tuesday.
The fact that most of the agency's volunteers are 70 to 90 years old makes coordinator Lynn Staab doubly proud.
“There they were, going out in this cold weather, delivering,” she said.
The winter months are notoriously hard on senior citizens, which is why agencies stress the importance of home visits, proper heating, physical checkups, social interaction and transportation help.
While they have not been inundated with calls for help, agency officials in Westmoreland County say the cold weather requires extra vigilance on the part of caregivers. Temperatures were supposed to drop back down into the single digits Thursday night and into the weekend.
“It's very important for the elderly to receive services during the cold months,” said Faith Sobel, spokeswoman for Senior LIFE Greensburg.
Senior LIFE offers in-home care and services at its day center at 123 Triangle Drive. Members can come and spend the day socializing and receiving medical attention, but the center sometimes closes or cuts back its hours when it gets too cold.
Dr. John Morrow, Senior LIFE medical director, said seniors tend to stay indoors in the winter, so they need more social interaction. But going outside can make them vulnerable to other hazards, such as falls, exposure and heightened medical conditions, he said.
“Folks will cancel because they don't want to expose themselves to the cold. Some of them don't feel steady enough to venture out on days like this, so they stay home. If they don't come in, we try to have our nurses give that person a call, which can trigger a home visit,” Morrow said.
Organizations such as Open Your Heart to a Senior, formerly Faith in Action, see a spike in requests for rides this time of year — especially from seniors who normally use public transportation.
“Although a lot of times they will try to stay at home because of the cold weather, if they do want to get out, that's when we get more calls for transportation,” said Melaney Hegyes, program director for Open Your Heart to a Senior, Jacobs Creek Area. “We do see an increase in requests for that type of assistance (this time of year).”
A program of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Open Your Heart oversees a small army of 300 volunteers, who serve an estimated 900 senior citizens a year — through appointment escorts, supportive visits and caregiver relief.
The program seeks volunteers who can make weekly telephone checks on clients. “Social interaction is a lot of what we provide,” she said.
Laurel Area Faith in Action will arrange for snow shoveling or grocery shopping for clients who do not want to go out. The agency's 200 volunteers serve more than 400 senior citizens living in Latrobe, Ligonier, Derry and Unity.
Although winter brings its own set of challenges, volunteer activity is affected by the tendency of seniors to “hibernate,” said Executive Director Jane Kerr.
“It does typically quiet down this time of year because people are afraid to get out. They just stay in and stay home,” she said. “My sense is that neighbors and friends and family sort of step up.”
Synergy HomeCare, which serves Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties, encourages people to be “cold weather companions” to their elderly relatives and neighbors.
Families taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer's disease should take extra precautions because of the tendency of Alzheimer's patients to wander, said spokeswoman Tammy Delgado. Nearly half of all hypothermia deaths happen to people older than 65, she said.
“Many of these deaths can occur right in their own homes, because seniors don't feel the dip in degrees due to dementia or medication that can affect awareness,” she said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.