Keeping Seniors Safe in the Summer Heat
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
For the elderly, preparing for bad weather is critically important. Even though you’d probably prefer to just smile and enjoy the spring weather, I urge you to also spend a bit of time thinking ahead and preparing for hot summer days ahead. They’ll be here before we know it!
Hot weather was something I always discussed with my geriatric patients and their families. It’s also important for friends and family to pay close attention to the health and well-being of their elderly loved ones during hot weather. No one likes to be exposed to 90-degree-plus temperatures and high humidity, but seniors account for a disproportionate number of heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. There are several reasons why:
Diseases. Some diseases, such as peripheral vascular disease or heart disease, make it more difficult for the body to circulate blood and cool down properly. Other diseases, like dementia or diabetes, make it a challenge to be aware of the sensation of hot temperatures.
Medications/drugs. Medications, such as diuretics, can exacerbate the dehydrating effects of high temperatures. Any drug that is a sedative or tranquilizer can blunt an individual’s awareness of discomfort, including alcohol.
Effects of aging. As we grow older, normal processes of aging make our bodies less efficient at regulating body temperature and responding to thirst appropriately. So, seniors may have less ability to sense when they are too hot or thirsty.
Mobility and travel limitations. Many seniors who live on their own cannot venture far from their homes or apartments. This may be for mobility reasons, but it can also be due to safety concerns. Because they are less inclined or able to keep windows open to help with cooling and for air circulation, elderly residents are much more vulnerable to rising indoor temperatures if the power goes out. And they may be unable to easily leave for a cooler environment.
10 Tips to Keep Seniors Safe and Cool
1. Start with the home
Clean out those air conditioning filters and explore options for keeping out heat from the sun, like using shades, blinds, or draperies on sunny windows. Outdoor awnings can also can make a big difference in keeping heat out of the house. Buy a portable fan for the room you spend the most time in.
2. Stay hydrated
Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when the temperature goes up. And don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water — drink water all day to avoid dehydration.
3. Talk to your doctor
Check to see if any of your medications are affected by high temperatures. Pills are often kept at room temperature, so some may be affected by temperatures above 90 and could become less effective.
4. Go where it’s cool
If you don’t have a functioning air conditioner at home, go someplace with more comfortable and safer temperatures. Shopping malls, movie theaters, and libraries provide welcome, cool spaces and afford a great opportunity to get out of the house and get some exercise, without the exhaustion of the heat. You can also contact your local Agency on Aging to see if there are any programs to help seniors get air conditioners.
5. Stay connected
High temperatures can be life-threatening, so communication plays an important role in ensuring the safety of the elderly. Seniors, let your friends and family know if you’ll be spending time outdoors, even if you’re only gardening. It’s also great to meet your neighbors and prepare a list of emergency phone numbers to keep in an easy-to-access area. Here’s a Senior Care Emergency Checklist you can fill out. For caregivers, it is not unreasonable for you to check on loved ones at least twice a day when it’s extremely hot.
6. Dress for success
Everyone, including seniors, should dress for the weather. When it’s warm out, some people find natural fabrics (such as cotton) to be cooler than synthetic fibers. Stock your summer wardrobe with light-colored and loose-fitting clothes to help keep you cool and comfortable. And don’t forget your eyes! Wearing sunglasses protects your eyes from harmful UV rays and helps preserve your vision.
7. Learn the symptoms of hyperthermia
An abnormally high body temperature is a condition known as hyperthermia, and “heat stroke” is an advanced, life-threatening form of hyperthermia. Know the warning signs and get medical attention immediately if you or anyone you know is experiencing these symptoms:
Body temperature greater than 104 degrees
Change in behavior, such as acting confused, agitated, or grouchy
Dry, flushed skin
Nausea and vomiting
Heavy breathing or rapid pulse
Not sweating, even if it’s hot out
Once you’ve requested medical attention, the person suffering from hyperthermia should get out of the heat, lie down, and place ice packs on the body.
8. Wear sunscreen and hats
Everyone — young and old — should wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors. The elderly especially need the extra sun protection to help keep them healthy. Caregivers, family, and friends can gently remind loved ones about applying sunscreen and help them put it on, when necessary. Hats are also a great idea, especially for those with light-colored hair and those with only distant memories of a full head of hair.
9. Apply bug spray
The elderly are particularly prone to West Nile Virus and encephalitis, both which are spread by mosquitoes. If you spend a lot of time outdoors (especially at night), use insect repellent to help reduce the risk of getting mosquito bites.
10. Exercise wisely
If you enjoy outdoor activities in the summer months, such as walking or gardening, make sure to wear weather-appropriate clothing and protective gear. It is also important to keep track of time. Do not stay out for long periods, and make sure to drink even more water than usual — before, during, and after your time outside. Also consider getting outdoor exercise earlier in the morning or later in the evening when the sun is not at its peak.
With just a little preparation, everyone can stay safe and enjoy spring and summer and fall!