Summertime is a favorite season for many outdoor activities. It’s a time for families and older adults to get outside, hit the beach, stay cool with some ice cream, grill and barbeque, and maybe even work on your tan. (but don’t forget your suntan lotion!)
For seniors though, the summer can pose health risks not present during other cooler times of the year.
With summer months come hot weather and an increased risk for heat-related illnesses, so it is important for each family member to stay vigilant in order to best protect yourself and senior loved ones from these dangers as you enjoy your favorite outdoor activities during the season’s hottest months.
Here are some quick tips on how seniors (and their caregivers) can keep cool and enjoy a safe summer.
1. What Temperature Is Too Hot For The Elderly?
If you’re planning on a beach day, most of us want the mercury to reach at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the ideal summer weather!
The summer sun is typically shining, there’s a lingering warmth in the air, and humidity can make things feel sticky and summer-like.
Yet once temperatures reach or exceed 80 degrees, it’s considered too hot for most elderly people. I know this may seem baffling as 80 degrees doesn’t seem that warm for most people.
Yet as we age, changes occur that can cause heat intolerance.
One of the main reasons is that as we age, our body’s ability to regulate temperature through our sweat glands and blood circulation tends to decrease.Asccare.com
Use your smart phone or smart watch to find out what the temperature is where you are at any time of the day or night.
2. The Elderly And Heat Intolerance: What You Need To Know
What is heat intolerance? When the temperatures rise past a certain point and you begin to overheat, heat intolerance occurs.
Unlike younger people, seniors cannot handle temperatures in the low-to-mid 80s and certainly not extreme heat such as temperatures in the 90s or the 100s.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “People aged 65 years or older are more prone to heat-related health problems.”alert-1.com
Several factors impact a senior’s ability to withstand summer heat, including taking medications, having certain chronic medical conditions, and age.
The Effect Of Medications
If your senior parent or loved one is on a list of prescription medications, those pills could do more than combat pain or ward off symptoms.
Some medications can prevent the senior from sweating, which gives their body no means of reacting to high heat. Other medications may interrupt temperature regulation.
When the temperatures start climbing, the senior will be more sensitive to the heat.
Medical Conditions And Heat Intolerance
Even small increases in the temperature can affect older adults who may be dealing with chronic health conditions.
Some of these conditions include the following:
- Multiple sclerosis: With multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks healthy nerves and breaks them down. A sudden increase in clumsiness, heat intolerance, and a feeling of pins and needles are the main symptoms.
- Thyroiditis: When the thyroid is inflamed, thyroiditis is likely to blame. This condition can induce nervousness, sensitivity to cold, and intolerance to high temperatures.
- Hyperthyroidism: An overactive thyroid that produces too many hormones will have symptoms akin to thyroiditis. Instead of cold intolerance though, a senior may experience weight loss. Heat intolerance is the main symptom as well.
- Goiter: An enlarged thyroid or goiter can speed up the heart rate, cause a feeling of tightness in the throat, and trigger heat intolerance.
- Graves’ disease: Graves’ disease brings with it similar symptoms, including an increased heart rate, nervousness, and heat intolerance.
- High blood pressure: Along with higher temperatures, summer tends to also bring high humidity. When the humidity is more than 70%, the excess moisture in the air can make it difficult for a body to sweat and cool off. This can cause more blood than usual to flow and force the heart to beat faster.
Inability To Adapt To Temperature Shifts
Besides the above factors playing a role in how an elderly body regulates heat, as they get older, seniors are just not as good at handling temperature shifts as they once were.
3. What Are The Early Warning Signs Of A Heat Illness?
Whether the heat illness is heat stress, heat syncope or heat exhaustion, when a senior has had too much sun exposure or just too much time in hot and humid weather, their temperature intolerance kicks in, they could develop a whole host of symptoms.
Here are the early signs of heat related illnesses to watch out for:
- Shallower and faster breathing than usual
- Changes to pulse (either rapid pulse or it’s slowed down)
- Moist and cool skin despite feeling hot
- Muscle cramps
- Pale skin
- Excessive sweating
If you notice one or more of these heat illness symptoms in yourself or a senior loved one, you want to check on them right away and take the proper precautions.
Ask if you can get them something to drink and offer to provide them refuge from the heat. That can include a shady spot or even going indoors if their heat illness is serious enough.
Ignoring heat illness can possibly give way to heatstroke. Anyone can be affected by heatstroke, but seniors with a heat intolerance are more likely to have symptoms because their bodies cannot regulate the high temperatures.
Signs include excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, muscle cramps and weakness. Heat exhaustion can quickly turn into heat stroke, a life-threatening condition which requires immediate medical attention. Signs of heat stroke include hot, dry, red skin; lack of sweating; rapid pulse; high body temperature (103 F or higher); headache; rapid and shallow breathing; loss of alertness; confusion or loss of consciousness.Healthjournalism.org
The senior may suddenly stop sweating, and their skin will feel dry and hot to the touch. Depending on how long they have been outside, their skin could be red too.
4. What Are Three Signs Of Dehydration?
Are you or your senior drinking enough water?
Our bodies use our internal supply of water to produce sweat. If a senior is sweating – especially profusely on a hot summer’s day – they need to make sure that they drink more than their usual quantities of water.
If you have a difficult time getting someone to drink enough water I can recommend popsicles (either storebought or homemade) which may be more desirable.
Failing to keep hydrated can lead to dehydration, which will have these three very noticeable symptoms:
1. Dry Mouth
If your senior loved one is smacking their lips and complaining that their mouth is dry, they are more than just thirsty, they’re dehydrated. Note that this symptom may also be accompanied by tongue swelling. In this case, they need to replenish their fluids ASAP.
2. Reduced Urine Output
If it’s been hours since an elderly adult has used the bathroom and still has no need to, this can also be indicative of dehydration. When you aren’t consuming any fluids, you don’t need to pass these fluids out via urination.
If you are dehydrated, once you do urinate, the color of the urine is a lot darker than usual, as well.
3. Smelly Breath
The mouth is full of saliva, especially during eating. Yet without the moisture from fluids, such as when we are experiencing dehydration, a senior will have less saliva in their mouth. This can in turn make their breath smell terrible.
When Do You Need To Be Concerned?
The symptoms of dehydration may not seem all that serious, and indeed at first, they may not be.
What can start as mild dehydration can quickly become severe though. At that point, a senior person may fall unconscious, become confused, have sunken eyes, breathe very quickly, and have a faster than normal heart rate.
Untreated dehydration can be fatal, so don’t ignore the signs!
5. Preventing Heatstroke In The Elderly
Getting back to heatstroke for a moment, let’s recap.
If a senior’s body overheats past 103 degrees, they could have a heatstroke, which is more serious than the other heat illnesses. They’d require immediate medical intervention.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.CDC.gov
You absolutely want to take extra precautions to do all you can to prevent this from happening.
5 Tips To Help Prevent Heatstroke
Drink Lots Of Water And Healthy Fluids
A great way to help prevent heatstroke is, of course, to drink more water.
On a typical day, seniors should consume eight glasses of water, each of which should be eight ounces (a total of 64 ounces). This maintains their basic hydration needs.
Yet in the summer, when they’re sweating more and losing fluids, their water intake should be increased to 10 glasses a day.
Besides water, seniors can also consume clear fluids and sports drinks.
The latter is especially a good choice since sports drinks can restore electrolytes and regular tap water cannot (but these are best consumed during a meal to reduce the chances of getting a cavity). Electrolytes are sources of minerals the body needs for optimal health. Just make sure to control your sugar intake!
Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages or caffeinated beverages when you are sweating from the heat. These drinks will only worsen your dehydration.
Of course, as I mentioned above – if getting someone to drink more than perhaps providing popsicles may be a good alternative.
Dress In Lightweight Summer Clothing
You make your summer-ready wardrobe by switching out any synthetic fabrics and opting for lightweight natural breathable fabrics instead.
Cotton is your best bet here, as it will allow the skin to breathe. Keep the layers to a minimum. Wear clothing with light colors instead of dark colors.
Avoid Overexertion In Hot Temperatures
If your senior parent or loved one is mostly independent, remind them that running errands during the hottest parts of the day is not a safe thing to do.
Overexerting themselves in other ways – be that pacing around their home too quickly or even trying to exercise – can also induce heat illness and even heatstroke.
Know When To Move Indoors
Many seniors don’t want to confine themselves inside the house all summer with the air conditioner on. But they should try to stay in shaded areas as much as they can.
Make sure you’re applying sunscreen in regular intervals to prevent sunburn as well.
About once an hour, ask your elderly loved one if they want to remain outside. If they say yes, then closely monitor them and look for signs of dehydration and heat illness.
If you see those symptoms manifest, then it’s time for them to get out of the sun, whether they want to or not.
If you want to get out and about, consider activities that are in cool places such as movie theaters, shopping malls, a senior center, museums, art galleries, etc.
For walking activities I would recommend either early morning or later on in the evening before it gets too dark – when the temperatures are cooler.
Note: Know that air conditioning can cause or exacerbate dry skin so make sure to use something like CeraVe Moisturizing Cream to help keep the skin hydrated.
Ensure The Home Is Adequately Cooled
Having a roof over one’s head does protect from the sun, but if your home isn’t cool enough, a heat illness could progress to heatstroke. A safe home temperature for older adults is between 65 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit all year around.
Central air conditioning is always best, but barring that, window AC units and oscillating fans will keep cool air moving so the senior’s temperature can come back down.
Products To Help Seniors Stay Cool
Here are a few products that may help you to stay cool during a hot summer day.
Deluxe Misting Fan
Battery operated and very easy to use. Just fill the bottle with water and you can not only use the fan but you can also use it to provide you with a cool mist!
These microfiber towels are easy to use. Simply soak them under water and then wring the water out. Place the towel around your neck to bring your temperature down.
These patches are actually meant to be used to help reduce symptoms from a fever and/or a headache but they can help to cool your body temperature down.
Those 80-degree temperatures may seem perfect to you, but for the elderly, this balmy weather is often when trouble starts.
Prolonged exposure to heat over 80 degrees can cause dehydration and heat illness in seniors. Keeping them out in the heat can worsen dehydration and even lead to a heatstroke.
Now that you know how to protect your senior loved, you can enjoy some family togetherness and have a safe summer!