Summertime is fun time, but it can also pose plenty of risks for seniors – and seniors with dementia in particular.
“Summer is hard on older adults because their bodies simply don’t adjust as easily to sudden temperature changes,” says Cindy Wirth, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury, a memory care assisted living community in Sudbury, MA. “Plus, seniors often have chronic medical conditions and take multiple medications, both of which can affect the ability of the body to regulate temperature. If we aren’t paying attention to our surroundings and what our bodies are telling us, it’s very easy to get dehydrated and develop heat stroke.”
Heat stroke is a severe form of hyperthermia, which is a condition that develops when our bodies can’t control internal temperature and are overwhelmed by heat (in other words, the opposite of hypothermia). There are three levels of hyperthermia, each one more severe than the last:
- Heat fatigue is the first stage of hyperthermia. People in this stage can experience cramps, excessive sweating, flushed skin, headaches, nausea and exhaustion.
- Heat exhaustion is the next stage, and is characterized by extreme sweating (paired with cold, pale and wet skin), nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, dizziness, an intense thirst, headaches and a fast but weak pulse.
- Heat stroke is the most extreme form of hyperthermia, which can be life-threatening. People experiencing heat stroke will often stop sweating, have difficulty breathing, become confused or disoriented, have mood swings, become uncoordinated and can pass out.
“While heat stroke is one of the biggest hazards for seniors with dementia, it’s not the only thing caregivers should be aware of,” says Cindy. “There are little things that can add up to difficulties in the summertime, so it’s important to know the summer safety steps you can take to make this time of year a happy, safe one for you and your loved one.”
Hazard #1: Dehydration
It’s very easy to become dehydrated. Most of us don’t drink enough fluid in general, and that goes double for individuals with dementia because they often can’t interpret their body’s signals. For example, if you’re thirsty, it means you’re already dehydrated – but your loved one may not realize that they’re thirsty. Dehydration can contribute to heat stroke if you’re in the heat, but it also causes problems if you’re not overheated and can lead to other issues up to and including organ failure. Help your loved one stay hydrated with these tips:
- Carry bottles of water with you wherever you go, and make sure your loved one drinks from them often.
- Encourage hydration at home by placing water jugs and cups throughout the house. You can even leave notes to encourage them to drink. If they don’t enjoy the taste of plain water, add fruit slices to give the water a little zing.
- Set reminders for them (and you) to take a drink, and frequently encourage your loved one to sip on fluids.
- Stick to fluids such as water, fruit juice or green tea. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which are diuretics.
Hazard #2: Heat
The sun is strong come summertime. It’s very easy to get a sunburn (especially for seniors who have thinner and more delicate skin), and even easier to become dehydrated and develop hyperthermia – even indoors. Keep you and your loved one safe from the sun and heat with these reminders:
- Apply sunscreen on a regular basis. Carry a tube with you and remind your loved one to apply it when needed (at least once every few hours; more if you’re sweating a lot or in the water).
- Wear appropriate clothing. Dress your senior in light-colored, flowing and breathable clothes. Hats and sunglasses are a must. Put away any winter clothes so your loved one doesn’t accidentally dress themselves in something that would cause them to become overheated.
- Stay out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day (usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). If you need to run errands or go out, try to do so in the earlier hours or later in the afternoon or evening. Stay in the shade or someplace cool if you must be out during midday.
- Keep your home cool. Make sure your air conditioner is running properly, and have fans throughout the house. Draw blinds during the heat of the day to keep the sunlight from heating up your space.
- Offer cool baths, compresses or showers to help your loved one keep their body temperature down.
Hazard #3: Wandering
Wandering is always a danger for individuals with dementia, and that goes double in the summertime. Your loved one may forget that it’s hot out and dress themselves in unsuitable clothing, increasing the risk of heat stroke. Since summer is a time for events and festivals, it’s also easier to lose them in a crowd. That doesn’t mean you should avoid doing things in the summer – it just means putting some precautions in place. Here are some things you can do:
- Avoid crowds if possible. If you’re planning on attending an event like a farmer’s market or festival, do so during the non-peak times. For things like concerts or fireworks displays, consider watching them on television or placing yourself at a distance if you need to leave quickly.
- Invest in a tracking device that your loved one can wear. Be sure also that they have forms of identification on them so that if you do get separated, others will know how to reach you.
- Wandering can be a sign of boredom, so be sure that your loved one has activities and other forms of stimulation to keep them interested and engaged.
Summer is a great time for you and your loved one to enjoy everything your community has to offer. In fact, there are many benefits to doing activities and events in the summertime, since there’s so much to do and the weather can be so cooperative. Following these summer safety tips will help reduce hazards and ensure an enjoyable time for you, your senior loved one and your family.
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Bridges® by EPOCH at Sudbury provides exceptional memory care in a comfortable, upbeat and engaging environment. Designed specifically to support people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Bridges® by EPOCH creates a wellness-focused lifestyle that respects individual preferences. Our teams receive ongoing, specialized training so they may help residents to safely exercise their independence and individuality in a secure, calm environment.
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