10 ways to be a winter friend

When the cold weather sets in you can make a difference by looking in on a neighbour who is elderly or vulnerable.

Safety first

If you feel uncomfortable in someone else's home, for example because the pet dog is growling or the person you're visiting seems aggressive, don't feel you have to go on with the visit. It's perfectly acceptable to explain that you're not feeling comfortable and leave.

Richard Bragg, who trains Royal Voluntary Service volunteers, says: "If you use your common sense and have a friendly, positive and respectful attitude, your offer of help will generally be well received and really appreciated by the majority of old people."

If you'd like to help, here are 10 ways you can make a huge difference.

Introduce yourself first

On your first visit be polite, smile, say who you are and ask if it's alright to enter the house before you do so. Let them know that you'll be popping in now and again to see if they need anything. Call the person by their title and surname – Mr or Mrs whatever – at least until you know them better. Or ask them what they prefer to be called, for example: "Would you prefer me to call you Jim or Mr Evans?". Avoid terms like "dear" or "sweetie", which can be seen as condescending.

Be prepared to find that a person's home is not what you expected – don't show your feelings, it could hurt theirs.

Speak clearly

If you think an older person may have trouble hearing or has memory problems, make sure to speak clearly (but don't shout!). Pause between sentences and questions to give them the chance to digest the information. And allow a little extra time for them to respond – don't hurry them.

Put the kettle on

Hot drinks help to keep an older person warm, so offer to make a cup of tea or coffee or heat up a can of soup. If they can't get around easily, you could offer to make up a flask of tea, soup or Bovril to have close to hand to last them through the day.

Help with shopping

If you're doing a supermarket run, it doesn't take much to ask if they need some shopping at the same time. This is especially helpful for heavy or bulky items such as cans, washing powder and pet provisions.

Make sure they have a stock of long-life basics such as baked beans, tinned casseroles, canned fish, drinking chocolate and other powdered bedtime drinks in the cupboard.

You could also offer to pick up prescriptions and medicines at the same time.

Give them a lift

Offers of a lift are usually very welcome, especially when it's cold and icy and hard to get about. If you have a car, offer to drive them to appointments at the GP surgery or hospital, or simply to see their friends. You could also take them to the library, hairdressers or faith services.

Help with household tasks

Getting older can make it hard to tackle even simple jobs around the house, and older people often really appreciate any offer of help with basic chores such as taking out the rubbish, changing light bulbs, fastening sash windows, clearing snow off the path, putting up pictures and so on.

Take them a meal

Many older people need a hand cooking for themselves, so why not take round an extra plate of hot home-cooked food (or a frozen portion they can heat up or microwave). Try to provide the meal in a container that you don't need back – it's hard work for both of you to keep track of serving bowls.

Here are some quick and easy recipes for delicious winter-warming meals.

Get them moving

General movement will help fend off the cold. Invite them outside for a walk with you, but make sure they wrap up and wear shoes with a good grip. If they're not able to go out, encourage them to get up and walk around the house every 30 minutes or so. Chair exercises are also a good way to keep warm and active.

Read more tips on how to cope in very cold weather.

Check they're warm enough

Ideally the home should be heated to 21ºC. Older people often can't tell how cold they are, so a room thermometer is more accurate. 

If they can't afford sufficient heating, make sure they dress warmly (plenty of layers of thin clothes are better than one chunky item – summer t-shirts make ideal base layers) and have a blanket to hand to wrap around them. Cotton, wool or synthetic fleecy materials are best.

Heat is lost through the head and neck, so suggest they wear a hat and scarf, even indoors. And warm socks will help to keep the circulation in the lower legs moving.

There are cold weather financial benefits for older people, plus grants and schemes to make their homes more energy efficient. Read more about these and other ways to keep warm and well.

Watch for signs of illness

Older people are particularly vulnerable during the winter as cold weather increases the risk of illnesses such as colds, coughs, flu, heart attacks, strokes, breathing problems and hypothermia (a dangerous fall in body temperature).

Check if they've had a free flu jab and, if not, offer to make an appointment at the GP surgery.

Look out for signs of serious illness, such as drowsiness, slurred speech and the person not complaining of feeling cold even in a bitterly cold room.

If you're worried, ask if there's a relative or close friend you can telephone, or call the doctor or NHS 111. You could also contact your local council or ring the Age UK helpline on freephone 0800 009 966.

Find out how to spot and treat the signs of hypothermia.

Read about 10 winter illnesses that are triggered or worsened by cold weather.

Read more government advice on the practical steps you can take to get ready for winter.

Page last reviewed: 17/12/2013

Next review due: 17/12/2015

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