We’re getting into the summer months here in New York and there’s plenty to be happy about. The days are longer, the weather is warmer and there are lots of outdoor activities to choose from. People of all ages can enjoy the delightful benefits of the season, but there are a few things to keep in mind for seniors this time of the year. Being aware of the effects of heat, dehydration and other summer concerns for our loved ones allows us to plan ahead and prevent dangers to their health. Here is a list of potential health crises for seniors in the summer and how to prevent and respond to them.
One potential problem for seniors in the summer can be extreme heat. With the temperatures reaching their highest point of the year, it’s a concern for all of us. This applies especially to seniors, who can have more difficulty regulating their body temperature. Even indoors during a heat wave the temperature can become dangerous. A home should not be above 85 degrees for extended periods of time. Caregivers for our elders can make sure that the temperature in their home stays safe to prevent the dangers of heat stroke and dehydration caused by overheating.
In cases of extreme heat where air conditioning is unavailable, a caregiver can help your loved one move to the safety of a cooling center, community center, library or commercial building such as a mall or movie theater that provides air conditioned relief in extreme heat. Here in New York, there is a program to help protect vulnerable populations from prolonged exposure to high temperatures in their homes. For low-income persons with a documented medical need, New York State can provide an air conditioner through the Home Energy Assistance Program.
To cool down at home, take a bath or shower, but be sure that seniors do so safely. Use tepid water near room temperature for the best result. Some of our loved ones need help getting in and out of the tub or shower, which is important to prevent falls. Make sure a caregiver is available to help. Cool compresses are a good alternative for those that can’t get into the bath. Apply cool, wet cloths to their wrists, ankles, armpits, and neck. The veins are close to the surface of the skin in these areas and the cool blood will circulate and bring down their body temperature.
Outdoor and Sun Safety
The summer is a great time to get some exercise, walk and enjoy the sunshine. All very healthy activities when done safely. However, concerns of overheating increase for seniors when they go outside and are exposed to the sun. A caregiver will make sure that when seniors go outdoors to enjoy the summer, that they do so in the early and later hours when the heat and the sun are less intense. Be sure to check the weather forecast for extreme heat and stay indoors between 10 am and 3 pm to avoid intense sun exposure.
It’s also important to dress for the weather to help keep cool and to use sun screen on outings to protect a senior’s skin. Wearing thin and loose fitting clothing in light colors is best. Dark colors absorb the heat and the sunlight and hold it against the body. You can use a big summer hat to shade the face and sun glasses are a good idea to protect the eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Wearing clothing in light removable layers will allow the person to better adjust to a comfortable temperature when moving indoors and outdoors during the day. It’s also a good idea to find a shady spot to sit when it’s time to relax or to bring a sun umbrella to make sure they will be comfortable.
Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia which means that someone’s body temperature has risen to unsafe levels. Heatstroke is a medical emergency and can become deadly if it is not treated quickly and correctly. Heatstroke is often accompanied by dehydration, which becomes a dangerous combination. If you come into contact with someone experiencing heat stroke, call 911. Get them to a cool, shaded place and apply cold compresses. If they are able, have them take small sips of room temperature water until help arrives.
Caregivers can be vigilant for symptoms of heatstroke such as dizziness, nausea, heavy breathing, rapid pulse, disorientation and headache that can be confused with the symptoms of chronic health conditions or the side effects of medication. Some medications can even make people more vulnerable to the heat or inhibit their bodies natural ability to regulate their temperature. In cases where heatstroke is suspected, err on the side of caution and seek help.
Dehydration can be a big concern in the summer heat. A caregiver will keep a vigilant eye for any fatigue, nausea and excessive sweating that is unusual and can indicate dehydration. Caregivers will also be present to make sure that a loved one is drinking enough fluids throughout the day to prevent any instances of dehydration. Avoid drinks containing caffeine, alcohol and too much sugar. These ingredients can contribute to dehydration. Cool but not iced water and clear juices are the way to go. Drink water throughout the day and take sips frequently to stay fully hydrated.
Sweating can lead to the loss of potassium and other important nutrients that should be replaced to stay healthy. Bananas are a great way to replenish lost potassium from sweating. Cucumbers, watermelon and other foods with a high water content can also be helpful to keep hydrated on hot days.
Other Summer Safety Tips
Shoes and sneakers are better for preventing falls than sandals and flip flops. Loose and open toed sandals and flip flops leave the feet open to injury and don’t support arches and ankles. Also, their loose attachment to the foot can lead to tripping.
Make sure your medications are stored at a safe temperature. Some medications need to be stored in a cool, dry place to remain safe and effective. Be sure to check that all of your medications are stored safely.
Most importantly, have someone available to check on the vulnerable people in your life. It’s also a good idea to check in on older neighbors. When we act as a community to care for each other, the summer will be more fun and all of us can enjoy the weather and stay healthy.