Heat Waves Increase Health Risks for Seniors

Tips for Caring for Elderly Loved Ones in Hot Weather

Although we all suffer during the hot summer months, elderly and disabled individuals, as well as loved ones with chronic health conditions (including diabetes and vascular disease) are more susceptible to heat stress and deadly heat stroke.

Aging loved ones are more likely to suffer the effects of hot weather than younger adults as they are no longer physically able to adjust to significant temperature changes. As we grow older, we lose the ability to regulate our body temperature and perspire – one reason why elderly individuals may overdress during the summer months – they don’t feel the heat the same way they used to. Skin also thins as it ages, providing less protection against the sun. Heart, lung and kidney disease, combined with poor circulation and high blood pressure increases the risk for heat-related illnesses, as does being overweight or underweight

It’s critical to keep in mind that the heat from outdoors combined with prescription drugs also prevent the body from effectively adjusting to temperature changes. Antipsychotic drugs (administered to Alzheimer’s patients) as well as tranquilizers, sedatives, anticholinergic drugs, sleeping pills, antihistamines, and blood pressure drugs and some antidepressants all interfere with a person’s ability to effectively adjust to hotter weather.

Older loved ones with cognitive impairments may not be able to effectively communicate their distress. In some extreme cases, they may not even feel discomfort or the heat because of changes in the brain’s ability to process sensory information related to body response to heat.

Too Much Heat – the Effect on Elderly Individuals

Older people may experience heat exhaustion and heat stroke – two common heat-related illnesses, heat stroke being the most serious.

Should you have an older loved one or parent staying with you, be aware of the following heat stroke symptoms:

• Dry, red, and hot skin – no sweat.
• An abnormally high body temperature (above 103 degrees F).
• A strong or rapid pulse.
• Dizziness.
• Nausea.
• A throbbing headache.

Tips for Preventing Heat Stroke & Other Heat Related Illnesses in Elderly Loved Ones

Caregivers provide a critical role in preventing heat-related emergencies. Keep your loved one or parent in a cool place and watch for signs of heat distress. Adhere to these rules for preventing heat-related illnesses in warmer temperatures.

• Visit your loved one at risk frequently – check on them once or twice a day – watch them carefully for signs of heat stroke and exhaustion.
• Cover windows. An easy way to beat the heat is to cover all windows in direct sunlight. Open windows during the nighttime to let in cooler air – an open, uncovered window will result in inside temperatures being the same as outside.
• Keep your loved one indoors – hottest time during the day is between 11 AM and 4 PM. Don’t leave your loved one in a car where temperatures can increase quickly. If your elderly parent wishes to be outside, make sure this is during cooler times and he or she stays in the shade, in a covered porch, or under an umbrella.
• Encourage your parent or loved one to drink more fluids and keep hydrated. Don’t wait until you become thirsty to drink. If your physician has limited the amount of fluid you drink (or has recommended water pills), it’s best to check with him or her how much water to drink during the warmer months.
• Purchase an electric fan – these may provide comfort. However, when temperatures reach the high 90’s fans cannot prevent heat-related illnesses. Spend time in air conditioned spaces and take showers or baths to cool off.
• Make sure your loved one is dressed in appropriate light-weight, light-colored and loose fitting clothing – preferably in fabrics such as cotton. Use umbrellas and hats outside. If air conditioning is too cold, recommend layers (including long sleeved shirts, an over the shoulder sweater, or foot covering).
• Avoid drinking beverages containing large amounts of sugar or alcohol – these liquids are not hydrating and may cause you to lose more body fluid.
• Stay in air-conditioned rooms – remain indoors if possible. Keep air conditioning on or below 80 degrees F. It’s best to invest in a room air conditioner or use fans to circulate inside air. If your home does not have air conditioning, we recommend visiting a public library or shopping mall during extremely hot days. It’s also a good idea to contact your local health department to find out if there are any facilities or shelters that provide heat-relief nearby.
• Inform others. If your loved one is in a nursing home or other facility, make sure they have a plan for dealing with high temperatures. Visit often.
• Lastly, be alert. A cognitively impaired individual may not be able to let you know when he or she is feeling the stress from heat or feeling uncomfortable or ill. Older people feel cooler in general and may not be able to sense the dangers of hot temperatures.

If you do suspect heat stroke, call 911 for medical assistance immediately. On behalf of Better Health for Women, we hope you have a safe and healthy summer.