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Protecting Seniors from Summer Heat

It's supposed to be a toasty one here in the Willamette Valley these next several days!

While summer brings us warmth and bloom, prolonged exposure to excessive heat in summer months can be dangerous. This is especially true for older adults. Every summer, more than 600 Americans die of health problems caused by excessive heat and humidity. Older adults and individuals with chronic medical conditions are at high risk of developing heat-related illnesses, because of aging-related physical changes in the body, chronic health conditions, and even effects of taking some medications. 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.

How to Spot & Treat Health Problems Caused by Heat


What it is: A loss of water in your body. It can be serious if not treated.

Warning signs: Weakness, headache, muscle cramps, dizziness, confusion, and passing out.

What to do: Drink plenty of water and, if possible, sports drinks such as Gatorade™, which contain important salts called “electrolytes.” Among other things, electrolytes play a key role in regulating your heartbeat. Your body loses electrolytes when you’re dehydrated. If you don’t feel better, call 911. If you feel better after drinking fluids, but have medical conditions like heart failure or take diuretics (“water pills”), you should also call your healthcare provider for a follow-up.

Heat stroke

What it is: A very dangerous rise in your body temperature, which may happen gradually over days of heat exposure in older adults. It can be deadly.

Warning signs: A body temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher; red, hot, and dry skin; a fast pulse; headache; dizziness; nausea or vomiting; confusion or lethargy; and passing out.

What to do: Call 911 immediately. Move to a cool, shady place and take off or loosen heavy clothes. If possible, douse yourself with cool water, or put cloths soaked with cool water on your wrists, ankles, armpits, and neck to lower your temperature. Try to see if you can safely swallow water or sports drinks while waiting for 911.

Note: If you are caring for someone else who has heat stroke, only give them water or drinks if they are awake and can swallow. Do not try to give fluids by mouth if the person is drowsy, as it could cause choking.

Heat exhaustion

What it is: A serious health problem caused by too much heat and dehydration. If not treated, it may lead to heat stroke (see above).

Warning signs: Heavy sweating or no sweating, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, paleness, cold or clammy skin, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, fast and weak pulse, fainting. Body temperature is generally between 98.6°F (37°C) and 104°F (40°C).

What to do: Without delay, move to a cool, shady place, and drink plenty of cool fluids, such as water or sports drinks. Call 911 right away if you have high blood pressure or heart problems, or if you don’t feel better quickly after moving to the shade and drinking liquids.

Heat syncope

What it is: Fainting caused by high temperatures.

Warning signs: Dizziness or fainting.

What to do: Lie down and put your feet up, and drink plenty of water and other cool fluids.

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.

Content Credit: Aging Care

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