Summer Heat and the Elderly
Being hot is different for older people. Caregivers for the elderly can help keep a loved one or client cool, comfortable, and even safe when summer temperatures soar.
Why the Elderly Suffer More in the Heat
There are many reasons that elderly people—those 65 years and older—are more likely to experience heat stress and become ill as a result. There are more than 600 people who die as a result of extreme heat in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the causes for heat stress in the elderly:
· Elderly people are not able to adjust to sudden changes in temperature like they did when they were younger.
· Chronic medical conditions—which elderly people are more likely to have than younger people—change the body’s normal responses to heat.
· Elderly people are more likely to be taking prescription medications that can hamper or impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
Obesity, dehydration, and fever can also make a person more susceptible to heat stress. In addition, people who do not have air conditioning and lack the ability to get outside or go someplace with air conditioning, are at increased risk of health problems in extreme hot weather. Heat-related illness may be heat stroke (when the body’s temperature rises rapidly and the body is not able to cool down with perspiration) or heat exhaustion (develops after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate replacement of fluids).
Take Caregiving Action
For those who feel like they are experiencing heat-related stress, take steps to cool down. The CDC recommends drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages (note that extremely cold liquids can cause cramps and individuals who have a medical reason to limit fluids, check with your doctor). Prevent heat stress during hot weather, especially in high humidity with these tips from the CDC:
· Take a cool shower or bath
· Go someplace that has air conditioning such as a mall or library
· Wear lightweight clothing
· Avoid strenuous activity
If you have elderly neighbors or loved ones who require extra care, be sure to check on them a couple of times a day during hot weather and check for symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. During the visit, encourage them to drink more fluids (again, be sure to determine if they are on water pills or if their doctor limits their fluid intake).
It’s recommended that seniors drink cool, non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages. A beer or a soda can actually increase dehydration and make things worse. Doctors can limit how much some older people can drink, or they may take water pills. If that happens, the CDC recommends you ask a doctor how much is safe to drink when the weather gets hot.
If a person is struggling with hot weather, it’s also not a good idea to give them a really cold drink because that can cause stomach cramps and make them not want to keep drinking.
The CDC says people should drink water throughout the day when it’s hot, even if they don’t feel thirsty. If a person gets thirsty, they are already dehydrated and we want to stop it before it starts. An older person with dementia may not be able to think through this reasoning themselves, so it’s OK for you to help them.
Look for any way possible to cool off—you may need to not only visit someone but assist with transportation to an air-conditioned location or to buy an electric fan for their home. If you see signs of heat stress when visiting an elderly loved one, the CDC recommends calling for immediate medical assistance. Also, begin cooling the person by either moving them to a shady spot, immersing them in a tub of cool water or getting them in a cold shower (even using a garden hose to spray cold water or a sponge soaked in cool water can help) and try to lower their body temperature to 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Conditions such as heat stroke can be deadly or cause a permanent disability. Learn more about coping in extreme heat on the CDC’s website.
While you wait for a medical professional, the CDC recommends these steps:
· Get the person to a shady area.
· Cool them down quickly – this could mean putting them in a tub of cool water, putting them in a cool shower, spraying them with a garden hose or sponging them with a cool, wet cloth. If you are in a place with low humidity, you can wrap them in a cool, wet sheet and fan them.
· Monitor their body temperature. You need to get it below 101°–102°F.
· Ask for help. Don’t hesitate to call 911. A 911 dispatcher may know more than you do and a paramedic certainly will. Get more summer safety tips for seniors in this article.