Heat waves are a potentially deadly problem. Each year nearly 600 Americans die from extreme temperatures, most of them elderly people. Seniors often don't realize when they are overheated, dehydrated and in danger.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that older people 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 overheating.

How to Help a Senior Stay Cool and Hydrated

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 seniors 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. To make things worse, elders often prefer beverages like coffee and soda to water. While drinks that are high in caffeine and sugar do contain some fluids, water is always the best option for staying hydrated.

Keep an Eye Out for Signs of Heat Stroke

While dehydration and overheating can be dangerous, the real threat to avoid this summer is heat stroke. Lisa Clark, a geriatrician based in Dallas, Texas, encourages caregivers to keep an eye out for symptoms like confusion or altered mental state in seniors who are out in hot weather. If your loved one should collapse or lose consciousness, Dr. Clark says it's considered a medical emergency and 911 should be called immediately.

While you are waiting for help, remove as much of their clothing as possible and pour cold water all over their body to bring their body temperature down. Should they come to, have a cool drink ready for them, as rehydration is critical.

Additional Tips for Beating the Heat

  • If your loved one complains of the cold indoors, turn up the thermostat a bit 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 you can.
  • To keep the house cooler without running the air conditioning, 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 or theater. “Even passing two or three hours in the AC each day can help reduce the risk of heat-related medical issues,” Dr. Clark says.
  • Offer plenty of drinks that your loved one prefers, but stay away from 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 that their 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.