Early signs of dehydration can be difficult for family members and caregivers to notice in their aging loved ones. General symptoms include confusion, fatigue, decreased urination and warmth to the touch. These symptoms can be misidentified as other health issues, but dehydration and other heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke are particularly dangerous for older adults.
According to the American Journal of Physiology, the body’s thermoregulation capacity, or ability to control body temperature, naturally decreases with age. Think of the thermoregulation system as the body’s internal heating and cooling system. Natural responses to warm temperatures, like sweating to cool the body, become less efficient over time. As the body becomes less capable of cooling itself, dehydration becomes an increasing concern.
Dehydration is the depletion of fluids or electrolytes in the body. Failure to adequately respond to dehydration can quickly lead to heat exhaustion – the body’s inability to control its own temperature. As the internal body temperature surpasses 103 degrees, the person enters a life-threatening condition. Heat stroke occurs when the sweat mechanism fails. If the body is unable to control its own temperature, heat stroke victims can suffer death or permanent disability without immediate emergency treatment.
Hot summer temperatures are a serious concern for seniors and their caregivers. Remaining conscious of outside temperatures and taking a preventative approach is the best way to avoid dehydration and other heat-related illnesses. The following tips can help your aging loved ones reduce their risk of dehydration.
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
It’s recommended that healthy individuals drink at least four to six glasses of water a day. But plain water isn’t the only option. A refreshing summer drink can be enjoyable and keep the body hydrated. Unsweetened iced tea is a great choice. Or, mix a favorite fruit in a pitcher of water and leave it in the fridge overnight for a cool, fruity drink the following day. Caffeine and alcoholic drinks don’t count. In fact, try cutting those options from the daily diet, particularly when the summer temperatures rise.
It’s helpful to treat proper hydration like a daily routine. Take steps to keep a drinking schedule that spreads fluid intake evenly throughout the day. Fill and stage multiple water bottles in convenient spots throughout the home.
Wear loose fitting clothes.
Baggier clothes keep the body cooler than tight-fitting options. Light-colored clothing, such as white or light blue, are a smart alternative to dark colors. Also, stay away from heavy cotton or thicker fabrics. The result is a summer style that is comfortable and helps keep the body cool all season long.
Stay busy with indoor activities.
If outside, stick to the shade. However, a better option is spending the day inside. That doesn’t mean staying home. Malls and movie theaters are options that keep the air conditioning running. Or visit a neighbor. Bring a favorite water-based beverage and keep hydrated alongside a friend or loved one.
The warm summer months are here. Understanding the symptoms of dehydration, while proactively managing the threats of heat-induced illnesses, are important to the well-being of aging loved-ones.
Jeffrey McManus, M.D., is California medical director for Humana.