Editor’s Note: The following column was originally published June 20, 2020
Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the Salem Visiting Angels office have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.
While most of us look forward to getting outside and enjoying the sun and warmer temperatures during the summer, prolonged exposure to the sun or extreme heat can be dangerous, and even deadly, especially for older people, whose bodies aren’t able to adjust as quickly to increases in temperature and who aren’t as fast to notice thirst and the effects of dehydration. With a few simple precautions, however, everyone can get out there and enjoy all the fun that summer has to offer.
As people age, their bodies lose the ability to conserve water, which makes older people more susceptible to the effects of dehydration. Unfortunately for seniors, the feeling of thirst decreases with age, and they may not register it as quickly as they once did. By the time a person starts to feel thirsty, dehydration has already begun.
While the amount of water needed to stay hydrated varies from person to person and is affected by factors like weight, age and activity, in general, a person should drink a cup of water for every 20 pounds of weight. Those living in hotter areas or who exercise more may need to replenish fluids more often. Those fluids being consumed should be decaffeinated and non-alcoholic. Carbonated soft drinks can also contribute to dehydration.
The body’s ability to adjust to temperature change declines over time, and even small temperature increases can have a drastic effect on seniors living with chronic medical issues. For that reason, loose, light-colored clothing is recommended for the outdoors on hot summer days. Light colors absorb less sunlight than darker colors, and loose-fitting clothes allow the skin to breathe.
Long sleeves and pants protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun, while hats with wide brims keep the sun from beating down on the face and back of the neck. Wrap-around sunglasses that protect the eyes from UVA and UVB rays should also be worn.
Long sleeves and hats alone may not always be enough to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Sunscreen should also be worn to prevent sunburn. The most effective sunscreens have an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher and block both UVA and UVB rays.
To be effective, sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going out into the sun, and it should be reapplied frequently during water activities, when it can be washed off easily. Bug spray should also be worn in the evening to prevent mosquito bites, especially by seniors, who are more susceptible to West Nile Virus and encephalitis.
During the summer months it’s important to have a place to go inside and escape the heat and humidity. The easiest place to do this is in a person’s own home, provided it is equipped with an air conditioner or central air. Those without AC can find shelter from the heat by visiting with friends who do, or by spending the hottest part of the day at a library, shopping mall or movie theater.
It’s a good idea to limit outdoor activity during the day to the morning and late evening hours, when temperatures outside are cooler and the sun’s rays are less intense. The hours of strongest sunlight are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
It is important to recognize the signs of heat stroke and watch for them, especially for older people. Heat stroke is an advanced form of hyperthermia, unusually high body temperature, and it can be fatal if left untreated. Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you are with is experiencing disorientation or confusion, has skin that is dry and flushed, is not sweating, has nausea or vomiting, is lethargic or excessively tired, has a headache, is breathing heavy or has a rapid pulse, or faints. In addition to getting medical help, get the person experiencing any of these symptoms out of the heat and place ice packs on their body.
Because high temperatures and exposure to the sun can be dangerous for older adults, it is important that they let family or friends know when they will be outside for extended periods of time, even if it’s only going for a walk or working in the garden. It is also a good idea to check in on older loved ones or neighbors to make sure they are keeping cool and coping with the heat. If their home is not air conditioned, take them to a place that is.
Seniors should also talk to their doctors about the side effects of any medications they might be taking that could make them more sensitive to UV rays or medications that become less effective if stored at higher temperatures.
Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels’ non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. Visiting Angels Salem was recently recognized by HCP as seventh on the list of Top 100 Leader in Experience agencies in North America. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.