Heat waves are a potentially deadly problem, and they’re only becoming more common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year around 618 Americans die from extreme temperatures, most of them elderly people.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that seniors often don’t realize when they are overheated, dehydrated and in danger. To make matters worse, older adults simply can’t handle the heat as well as younger individuals because they don’t sweat as effectively and have poorer circulation. Obesity, heart disease, dementia, diabetes and other chronic medical conditions can compound the risk, as can certain medications like diuretics, antihypertensives and those used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Fortunately, there are simple ways of protecting our aging loved ones from heat-related illness.
What Caregivers Need to Know About Extreme Summer Heat and the Elderly
To protect seniors from the unrelenting summer heat, the standard advice is for them to remain inside air-conditioned buildings, dress lightly and keep hydrated. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, since poor circulation often causes older adults to catch a chill more easily. It’s not uncommon for an elder to reach for a sweater or turn on the heat in their home even though it’s unbearably hot outside.
Dehydration is another serious concern. The body’s natural thirst mechanism becomes less effective with age, so many seniors are perpetually dehydrated regardless of the season. Elders tend to prefer beverages like coffee and soda to water, too. Drinks that are high in caffeine and sugar do contain some fluids, but water is always the best option for staying hydrated.
While dehydration and overheating can be dangerous, the real threat to avoid this summer is heat stroke. Lisa H. Clark, M.D., a geriatrician based in Dallas, Texas, encourages caregivers to keep an eye out for signs of heat exhaustion, which can lead to heat stroke.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion in Elderly Individuals
- Sweating profusely
- Cold, pale and clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Tiredness or weakness
Symptoms of Heat Stroke in Seniors
- High body temperature (103°F or higher)
- Hot, red, dry or damp skin
- Fast, strong pulse
- Loss of consciousness
Be on especially high alert for confusion or altered mental state in seniors who are out in hot weather. If your loved one should collapse or lose consciousness, Clark says it’s considered a medical emergency and 911 should be called immediately. While you are waiting for help, move them to a cooler location, remove as much of their clothing as possible and pour cold water all over their body to bring their body temperature down.
Additional Tips for Beating the Heat This Summer
- If your loved one complains of the cold indoors, turn up the thermostat in small increments and try to seat them away from the direct flow of air vents.
- If they won’t stay inside, have them sit outside in a shady spot under a ceiling fan or near a box fan. Try to get them to spend the hottest parts of the day inside if possible.
- To keep a senior’s home cooler, close curtains or blinds on the east side of the home during the morning and the west side in the afternoon.
- If your loved one doesn’t have air conditioning or refuses to use it, make sure they spend at least some time in a cool, air-conditioned space like a library, mall, senior center or theater. In cities that are prone to hot weather, emergency shelters known as cooling centers provide the public with a safe place to enjoy a reprieve from the heat.
“Even passing two or three hours in the AC each day can help reduce the risk of heat-related medical issues,” Clark says.
- Offer plenty of drinks that your loved one prefers, but avoid highly caffeinated beverages, sodas loaded with sodium and alcohol.
- Keep cool treats available that are low in sugar and have a high water content. Sugar-free popsicles are a classic, and you can make your own using juice. Fruits and vegetables that are high in water, like watermelon, cucumbers, celery, strawberries and bell peppers, are also an easy way to increase a loved one’s fluid intake without getting them to drink more.
- Seniors sometimes dress inappropriately for warm weather, so make sure your loved one’s clothing is lightweight, not too form-fitting and light in color. Hats are useful, but make sure they are loosely woven or well ventilated, so they don’t trap heat. A broad brim is also crucial for shading the entire face.
- Wear sunscreen when outside, and don’t forget to reapply! Sunburns not only cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer but they can also interfere with the ability to regulate one’s body temperature.
Sources: Climate Change Indicators: Heat Waves (https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-heat-waves); Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness (https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/warning.html)