When It’s Too Hot for Comfort, How to Keep Your Elder Safe

Temperatures in the 90s. Humid air thick as pea soup. Relentless, hot sun, with no relief under shade trees. Yep, it’s summer, all right, here in New England.

Even for hardy souls, when the heat index soars, it’s hard to get through the day without feeling totally exhausted. For aging loved ones, extreme high temperatures bring added risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. That’s because, as we age, our bodies are less able to adjust to excessive heat or sudden changes in temperature.

Chronic medical conditions can also compromise the body’s internal thermostats, and the prescription medications that treat those conditions can wreak more havoc on elders’ ability to adapt to heat. Some drugs may even hinder perspiration, which is essential to cooling.

Here are some tips to help the elder in your life stay cool and safe in hot weather:

  1. Stay indoors and avoid strenuous activities. Be sure the home or indoor space is comfortably cool. Keep shades down, windows closed against extreme heat and humidity, and use good fans or air conditioning. Make sure fans do not present mobility hazards. Inexpensive solar curtains can help maintain cooler indoor spaces. If those amenities aren’t available, encourage your aging loved one to relax at a library, movie, mall, museum, senior center or other public space that has good air conditioning.
  2. Keep hydrated. Don’t wait until thirst becomes insistent. Drink cold water or other cool beverages throughout the day—but avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can actually dehydrate the body.
  3. Wear lightweight, light-colored cotton or other natural fiber clothing that breathes. Layers help to moderate extremes when moving from outdoor heat to indoor air conditioning.
  4. Stay cool during the day with a foot bath, a shower or body bath, or a washcloth on the back of the neck. Water in all cases should be just below body temperature for the best cooling effect.
  5. Eat light, cold meals and avoid heavy, hot foods. Extreme heat tends to suppress appetite, but it’s important to get nourishment, even in small portions throughout the day. Cold snacks like popsicles or slightly frozen grapes can provide a boost.
  6. Watch for signs of heat exhaustion. Your loved one may complain of feeling faint, dizzy or nauseated, or have muscle cramps. Excessive sweating, a rapid and weak pulse, and cool, pale skin that feels clammy to the touch are all red flags. Get your elder to a cool place, help her drink water, and apply a cool compress to her forehead or back of the neck. She may need to lie down and rest.
  7. Beware of heat stroke. This is more dangerous. Throbbing headache, nausea or vomiting, and a strong, rapid pulse are all symptoms. Most importantly, your elder will not be perspiring, despite a body temperature above 103° F and red, hot, dry skin. He may lose consciousness. Call 9-1-1 immediately, get your loved one to a cool place and apply cold compresses until help arrives.

We can’t control the weather, but we can make plans and take precautions against extreme heat—for ourselves and those we love who are at greatest risk. Here’s hoping those hot, hot days are the exception and not the rule this summer!

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care® Manager. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

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Image Credit: Alison Marras

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