Our ability to cope with the effects of high temperatures, high humidity, and hot sun goes down as we age. According to the CDC, people aged 65 and older are at an increased risk of heat-related health problems, such as heat stress and exhaustion. Plus, older people are more likely to have chronic conditions such as diabetes and lung disease, which can also reduce their ability to cope with heat waves.
Certain medications can affect body temperature and sweat production, making it hard for the body to cool down. If you take medications for blood pressure, heart problems or other conditions, they can reduce the amount you sweat and affect circulation, which helps the body cool down. If you have diabetes, it can affect your blood vessels and sweat glands, and heat can also change your body’s ability to use insulin. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor’s office to find out any special heat-related factors you need to think about given your health conditions.
Even if a loved one’s home is air-conditioned, they may still overheat depending on their level of activity and how well the house can hold the cooler temperatures. Here are several ways you can help your loved one keep cool this summer:
Drink enough water to prevent dehydration
Older adults tend to drink less water than younger adults, even though they are at greater risk of dehydration. Hot weather can make this even worse! This is especially true for people who fear falling or simply find it painful to get up and down due to extreme joint pain, injuries, or some other condition.
Encourage your loved one to drink water or beverages that contain water, like fruit juice. Drinks like coffee, hot tea, caffeinated beverages, and alcohol can have a diuretic effect, causing the body to lose fluid, so your loved one should avoid them in hot weather.
It is also a good idea to skip, or decrease, alcohol during a heat wave, as it can affect a person’s response to heat and their ability to recognize problems.
Dress for the weather
Wearing breathable fabrics can help older adults from getting overheated. On hot days, make sure they have loose fitting clothing options in natural fabrics like cotton and linen. Indoor weather can sometimes get chilly thanks to air conditioning, so it can help to provide your loved one with an easy to remove shawl or sweater if they get cold.
Help the house stay cool
While air-conditioning and fans are running, close the windows and doors to rooms not being used to trap the cool air in the rooms being used. To keep the house extra cool, block cracks under doors with towels or insulation strips. If the house has a lot of windows, sunlight streaming inside can raise the temperatures indoors, so be sure to use shades or curtains when necessary.
For those who do not have air conditioning, or are worried about running it too much for financial reasons, many communities offer free cooling centers during the hottest times of the year. Public libraries, recreation centers, civic buildings, churches or other places of worship and senior centers all offer free opportunities to get inside a cool building on the hottest days.
Don’t overuse the stove or oven
Stoves and ovens can generate a lot of heat when in use. If dinner involves cooking something for long periods of time in the oven, it can make even an air-conditioned kitchen uncomfortably hot. On hot days, try avoiding recipes that use the stove. If you have to use it, run the kitchen’s exhaust fans to pull heat and steam from the room while cooking.
Apply cold compresses
Cold compresses can help regulate body temperature when a person feels overheated. The compress should first be applied to their wrists, neck or temples to help quickly distribute the temperature lowering effects to the rest of the body. If you don’t have a compress, cold water bottles, a bag of ice cubes or even a bag of frozen vegetables, make for good substitutes.
Cold compresses have the added benefit of decreasing swelling and inflammation. Just be careful not to leave frozen compresses in place for more than 20 minutes at a time.
To make your own cold compress, you will need:
- ice (or frozen vegetables)
- plastic bag
Step 1: Place ice cubes in a plastic bag. You can also substitute ice with a bag of frozen food. It’s best to use smaller vegetables so the bag will sit well on your skin. If you do need to use a bag of frozen food, fill up ice cube trays in the meantime. That way, you have a backup when the bag of frozen food thaws out.
You can also use a towel to make a cold compress if you don’t have ice:
Dampen a towel with cold water and place it in a sealable plastic bag. Put the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes. Cold compresses made from wet towels may be more comfortable for sensitive areas.
Step 2: Run a washcloth under cold water and then wrap it around the plastic bag of ice. You can also dip the wash cloth into an ice bath if you don’t think it’s too cold against your skin.
Step 3: Place the homemade compress on your skin for up to 20 minutes.
Step 4: Dry the area with a towel after you’re done. You can also dab the skin as you hold the ice pack on yourself. The ice may start melting pretty quickly.
Limit demanding activities
Exercise is important for older adults, but on extremely hot days, demanding activities should be limited wherever possible to avoid dizziness and exhaustion. If it’s necessary for your loved one to do a lot of moving about the house during a hot day, they should cool their bodies back down with cold compresses, a sponge bath, or a cool shower or bath.
If outdoor activities are part of your care recipient’s routine (exercising the dog, tending the garden, checking the mailbox) try to schedule these activities early in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
By the time older adults start feeling the worst effects of high heat, they may require emergency treatment. But hospital emergency rooms are not the place anyone wants to spend a hot summer day, and they can hold special risks for older adults.
If you notice signs of feeling faint, dizzy, fatigued, agitated, nauseous, or feverish in the heat, contact a doctor, especially if the symptoms last for more than an hour. If someone’s behavior changes, for instance, if they are confused or combative, or delirious, that is a very serious sign.
Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can be life-threatening and should be treated as soon as possible.
Sources: Julie Hayes, MS, Content Manager at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging for WellMedCharitableFoundation.dalilylivingadvice.com (used with permission). Everything You Need to Know About Using a Cold Compress. 5 Hot Weather Tips that Could Save an Older Adult’s Life
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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