By: Megan Jones
As the temperature rises, caregivers should be more aware of the dangers of dehydration, heat stress and heat stroke in people living with Alzheimer's and dementia.
While the heat shouldn't prevent you from taking your loved one out for some exercise or fun, it is worth noting that many factors make seniors more prone to heat-related illnesses. Heat stroke can be deadly, and dehydration can worsen dementia symptoms such as confusion, irritability and dizziness.
Why seniors are more vulnerable:
- As we age we lose the ability to perspire and regulate our body temperature. Seniors may not be able to feel the heat, and may overdress.
- Some people with dementia may be over or underweight, have problems with blood pressure, kidneys or circulation. These can all increase the risk of heat-related illness.
- Older people's skin is thinner, and offers less protection from the sun.
- Medications -- including anti-psychotic drugs often given to Alzheimer's patients -- can interfere with the body's ability to regulate heat.
- Cognitive impairment can inhibit the person's sensory ability and stop them from "feeling" heat. It can also make it difficult for the person to express discomfort if they are non-verbal or have trouble communicating.
- Some habits may increase a senior's risk of heat-related illness, particularly if they live alone. They may shut the windows, forget to turn on their air conditioners or forget to drink water regularly, for example.
Tips for staying cool:
- Encourage your loved one to drink more fluids than usual, but avoid tea, coffee and alcoholic beverages.
- Avoid the outdoors during the hottest times of day (from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Park close to building entrances to avoid long walks in the heat. If you do go outside, find a cool, shady spot to rest in.
- Be sure your loved one is dressed in lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothes. Try to stick to natural fibres such as cotton. Use hats and umbrellas outside.
- Use air conditioning or frequent air-conditioned public spaces such as malls or libraries if you don't have one at home.
- Stick to light meals and don't use the oven or stove if possible.
- Check in several times a day -- or get friends or neighbors to stop by -- particularly if the person lives alone. If they lack transportation, be sure there is someone to take the person to appointments, for groceries, etc.
- Monitor your loved one: remember that they may not be able to tell when they are becoming over-heated, or may not be able to express their discomfort.
- Keep bedding light and clean, particularly if a person is bedridden. A bed frame can also help circulate air underneath the bed.
Signs of heat-related illness:
- Heat stress: headache, nausea, fatigue, cool, moist skin, a weakened pulse, dizziness and feeling faint
- Heat cramps: muscle spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs after exercise.
- Heat exhaustion: thirst, giddiness, weakness, lack of coordination, nausea, and profuse sweating. Cold, clammy skin. Body temperature may be normal. Pulse is normal or raised slightly. Pupils may contract. Urination decreases and the person may vomit.
- Heat stroke: this can be deadly, and medical attention is required right away. Body temperature above 100 degrees, confusion, combative or strange behaviour, feeling faint and staggering. Rapid pulse, dry, hot skin. Lack of sweating and fast and shallow breathing. Possible delirium, seizures or convulsions, and coma.
What to do if a person shows signs of heat-related illness:
- Move to a cool, shady area
- Lower their body temperature quickly: put the person in a tub of cool water or a cool shower; spray the person with water from a garden hose; sponge them with cool water; etc.
- Apply a cool wet cloth to the head, groin and armpits, which cool quickly.
- Elevate the feet
- Fan the person by hand or using an electric fan
- Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101°- 102°F.
- Get medical assistance as quickly as possible.