Heat can be hard on seniors
Published 10:19 am, Monday, July 7, 2014
This is my first month as the executive director of geriatrics and palliative care at Bridgeport Hospital. I am assuming the role from Dr. Beata Skudlarska, known to most of you as Dr. Bea. I am looking forward to continuing her column and answering your questions. Here is a question I was asked recently.
Q: My widowed mother is 86 years old. She never seems to complain about hot weather, but I worry about her when it gets too warm. She's 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs about 130 pounds. She takes medication for anemia, high blood pressure and a heart murmur. Add to that the fact that she underwent a hip replacement operation two to three years ago and continues to use a cane and walker to move about. More recently, she has been experiencing memory loss -- possibly dementia or early Alzheimer's -- which adds to my concern. What advice do you have for her and our family to help her avoid more serious health problems?
A: As you point out, hot weather can be a challenge for people living with chronic conditions. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration are huge concerns.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is exposed to high temperatures for a prolonged period of time or when there is not enough replacement of fluids and the body gets dehydrated. Warning signs of heat exhaustion is excessive sweating, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, fast heart rate, cool, clammy skin or rapid, shallow breathing.
Heat stroke is when the body loses its ability to regulate its core temperature and body temperature rises to dangerous levels quickly. This is a life-threatening medical emergency. Symptoms of heat stroke are a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, red, hot, dry skin (no sweating), confusion, headache, dizziness, nausea and a fast heart rate. If you experience these symptoms or come upon someone experiencing these symptoms, call 911 for help. You also need to get to a shady area, sit under a cool shower or cool water from a garden hose or sprinkler and monitor body temperature until it drops below 102 degrees.
People on water pills and taking certain heart medications are at greater risk for these problems. Your mother's memory loss also makes it less likely that she'll remember to avoid dehydration or recognize that she is getting too hot. In the hot summer months, especially when the temperature goes above 90, it is a good idea to check in daily with elderly parents or neighbors to make sure the air conditioner is on and that they are drinking fluids. If you don't have an air conditioner, there are several other things that can help, like going to an air-conditioned mall, senior center, library or movie theater. You might also consider an adult day care program during the summer months to help keep an eye on your loved one.
Electric fans don't help lower body temperature once you are overheated. However, a cool shower or cool compresses on the forehead or back of the neck can be helpful. In hot weather wear light-weight and light-colored clothing. You can pack away your mother's winter clothes so she can't accidentally wear clothing that would be too warm. Lastly, make sure your mother has plenty of water or other nonalcoholic beverages to stay hydrated. Since she has memory loss, you might put out a pitcher of water that she needs to drink by the end of the day to give her a goal. Stock the fridge with foods high in water like watermelon and cantaloupe. If your mother likes popsicles those are a great source of fluids as well. Sometimes people with certain conditions, like heart failure, are told to limit water intake. In that case, make sure to ask your doctor what the daily water intake goal for her should be on very hot days.
Questions can be mailed to: Center for Geriatrics, AskDrViv, 95 Armory Road, Stratford CT 06614 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.