The sunny days of summer are here, and along with warmer temperatures comes the risk of dehydration and heat stroke in the elderly. Seniors have a higher risk of dehydration and heat stroke for several reasons, including:
- They are more likely to have medical conditions that may change the way the body responds to heat.
- They may take prescription medications that impair their body’s ability to perspire or regulate temperature.
- They may take medications that make them more susceptible to the sun.
- They don’t adjust as well as younger people to sudden temperature changes.
During the summer months, it helps to take some safety precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses like heat stroke. Below are some helpful safety tips, an explanation of what heat stroke is and an overview of the important symptoms of heat stroke to look out for in the elderly.
Summer Safety Tips
With a few summer safety tips for seniors and their caregivers, you can beat the heat and have fun in the sun this summer.
Tip #1 – Stay Well Hydrated
As you age, your body loses some of its ability to conserve water, which makes seniors more susceptible to dehydration. You may also be less aware that you’re thirsty as you age. When it’s warmer, it’s important to make sure you’re drinking enough water each day, especially when out in hot weather. If you’ll be out on a summer drive, pack some water to take along.
If you’ll be outdoors for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to have some electrolyte replacement drinks that have potassium and salt in them, such as Gatorade or PowerAde. Consuming foods that have sodium and potassium can also be helpful when you’re trying to stay well hydrated.
It’s also a good idea to avoid drinking caffeinated beverages, drinks with a lot of sugar, and alcohol, since they can make your body lose even more water, increasing the risk of dehydration.
Tip #2 – Choose the Right Clothing
Dressing for warm weather can keep seniors from getting overheated as well. During the warmer months, natural fabrics like cotton are usually cooler than clothing made out of synthetic fibers. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothes can keep you feeling comfortable and cool. Choosing clothing that covers your skin from direct sun rays can also be helpful, protecting the skin from sunburn.
Tip #3 – Avoid the Mid-Day Sun and Heat
The hottest part of the day in the summer is usually between 10 am and 4 pm, so it’s best to avoid being outdoors in the midday sun and heat, particularly if you’re dealing with extreme heat or humidity. If you need to be outdoors to run errands or take care of other tasks, try doing so before 10 am or later in the evening when you’ll have cooler temperatures.
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Tip #4 – Be Aware of the Heat Index
Don’t just pay attention to the temperature outdoors, make sure you are aware of the heat index as well. The heat index factors in the temperature and the humidity to figure out how hot the weather feels. You can easily find the current heat index on weather websites, on radio weather reports, or on local television weather reports. The higher the heat index, the tougher time your body will have cooling itself, so avoid being outdoors when the heat index is high.
Tip #5 – Keep the Eyes Protected
Many elderly individuals deal with vision loss and exposing your eyes to too much sun can cause more damage and irritate them. Wear sunglasses to keep your eyes protected from the harmful UV rays, which will help preserve your vision and reduce your risk of further eye damage.
Tip #6 – Use Hats and Sunscreen
No matter your age, it’s always important to make sure you’re putting on sunscreen. Seniors often have more sensitive skin, so you’ll need extra sun protection to avoid burns. In some cases, medications may make you more vulnerable to the sun’s rays, so check with your pharmacist to find out if you need to avoid sun exposure.
Hats can also protect you from the sun, especially if you have little hair or light-colored hair. A good hat can offer some extra protection for your eyes as well.
Tip #7 – Be Smart with Exercise
If you love doing a little outdoor gardening, walking outdoors, or engaging in other types of outdoor exercise, make sure you do it the smart way during the summer. Exercising later in the evening or early in the morning is a great idea. Wearing the right clothing, sunscreen, and any other needed protective gear can help as well. Avoid exercising outdoors for long periods and ensure you’re drinking more water than you normally would when you’re exercising outdoors in warm weather.
You may even want to move your exercise routine indoors. You can head to the mall to do some walking. Visit a local gym to do some light strength training or walk on a treadmill. Try water aerobics or swimming at an indoor pool to stay active. You don’t have to be outdoors in the heat to make sure you stay moving this summer.
Tip #8 – Don’t Forget the Bug Spray
Along with beating the heat, another concern that comes with the summer months is bug bites. Elderly individuals are more prone to get encephalitis and West Nile Virus, so if you live in areas where there are many mosquitoes or you are outdoors a lot, especially in the evening, make sure you’re applying mosquito repellent to reduce your risk of being bitten.
What is Heat Stroke?
Heat stroke is the most serious type of heat injury, and it’s considered to be a medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body overheats, usually as a result of physical exertion or prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Heat stroke may occur when the body temperature reaches 104°F or even higher, and the condition most commonly occurs during hot, summer months.
It’s important for seniors and senior caregivers to understand that a heat stroke is very dangerous and requires emergency treatment. It has the ability to quickly damage muscles, kidneys, brain, and heart. The longer treatment is delayed, the worse the damage can be, increasing the risk of serious complications or even death.
Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke
Since heat stroke does require emergency treatment, it’s important for the elderly and their caregivers to be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke may include:
- Rapid Heart Rate – The pulse may increase significantly because the heat is placing a huge burden on the heart to help cool the body down.
- High Body Temperature – A body temperature that is 104°F or higher is the top sign of a heat stroke.
- Altered Sweating – If you have a heat stroke brought on by exercising strenuously, skin may feel slightly moist or dry. Heat strokes brought on by very hot weather generally cause the skin to feel dry and hot to the touch.
- Rapid Breathing – Breathing often becomes shallow and rapid.
- Headaches – Heat stroke may cause extreme headaches that feel like a throbbing in the head.
- Altered Behavior or Mental State – This may include irritability, confusion, seizures, delirium, slurred speech, agitation, or even coma.
- Muscle Cramps or Weakness – You may feel very weak or your muscles may begin to cramp.
- Vomiting and Nausea – You may feel very nauseated or you could begin vomiting.
If you think you or a person you care for is suffering from a heat stroke, get immediate medical attention. Call a local emergency services number or 911. While waiting for emergency treatment, remove any excess clothing and move the person indoors or into the shade. Cooling the person in any way possible, such as sponging with cool water, placing cold, wet towels on the groin, armpits, neck, and head, or spraying with cool water from a hose or shower, can help. Keep in mind, it’s not recommended to use ice on older individuals, since quick changes in body temperature are more dangerous for aging adults.
If you are aging in place or you’re a family member that is caring for an elderly individual, having the help of a caregiver during the summer months may be a great idea. Caregivers can help with summer outings, help seniors stay hydrated and keep safe in the hot weather, and be alert for the symptoms of heat-related illnesses.