Updated: Jun 24
Summer is here! If you’re caring for elderly loved ones, you might think that the same strategies that younger people use to manage the heat will work for your older relatives. That’s not the case. There are big differences.
People aged 65 and older are more prone to heat stress than younger people.
Older people don’t adjust as well to sudden changes in temperature.
Older adults are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat.
Older adults are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body's ability to regulate its temperature or that inhibit perspiration.
If your elderly loved ones spends too much time in a hot environment, heat stroke, the most serious heat-related illness, might be the result. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s internal thermostat fails. The person’s temperature rises rapidly, the body loses its ability to sweat, and it is unable to cool down. Skin is red, hot, and dry. The pulse is rapid and strong. A throbbing headache, dizziness, and nausea are also common. Body temperatures can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes, causing death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
More common among older adults is heat exhaustion, a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate replacement of fluids. Symptoms include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and fainting. Skin may be cool and moist, the pulse may be fast and weak, and breathing may be fast and shallow.
Dementia affects the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, which can heighten the impact of heat-related illnesses. Caregivers will often overdress a loved one, making things worse. If patients are wearing three layers of clothes in the summer, I ask their caregivers to remove a layer. It’s best to dress dementia patients as you normally would for the season.
If you are an elderly loved one’s first line of defense from heat-related stress, what should you do?
Visit at least twice a day, watching for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, especially if your loved one has mild cognitive impairment or is in the early stages of dementia. If you have cause for concern, confirm that their air conditioner is running, keeping in mind that some older adults confuse the heat and cooling settings. If their living space is too warm or their system isn’t working, arrange for them to go to a cooled space.
Make sure your loved one is drinking enough water. Many older adults don’t, especially those with dementia. Many dementia patients can’t tolerate water in larger doses, so shoot for a sip or two every few minutes. Some people with dementia forget they need water or can’t remember when they took their last drink. They are totally dependent on their caregivers to stay hydrated.
If your elderly loved one refuses to drink water, adding a packet of flavoring may make the water more palatable. Gatorade is another option that works well. Just be careful not to put your loved one into fluid overload. His or her physician will be key in helping you strike the balance.
Heat-related illnesses in older adults can be serious. When they happen, they often result in a trip to the emergency room or a hospital stay. Both can lead to hospital trauma which can accelerate behavior changes in a dementia patient who would otherwise be cognitively stable at home. It can take weeks to come out of this fog, so prevention is always the best medicine.
If you are caring for an elderly loved one and you need help, Truhlsen Elder Care Law of Nebraska is here for you. Just give us a call.