Summer Safety for Seniors
When we think of summer, we think about outside activities: gardening, barbecues and pool parties. But the summer heat can have more of a negative effect on our senior loved ones. A little preparation can ensure that seniors are able to enjoy the season and participate in all the joys that summertime has to offer.
Extreme summer heat actually causes thousands of heat-related illnesses throughout the country, and seniors are among the most vulnerable. While too much heat is dangerous at any age, the elderly have a particularly hard time dealing with overheating. One of the main reasons is that as we age, our body’s ability to regulate temperature through our sweat glands and blood circulation tends to decrease. Other reasons include factors like weakness from age-related illnesses such as heart disease or COPD, side effects from medications, and a reduced feeling of thirst that leads to dehydration.
Being hot for too long can be a problem. According to the National Institute on Aging It can cause several illnesses, all grouped under the name hyperthermia (hy-per-THER-mee-uh). Being from Minnesota, I tend to think of hypothermia more than hyperthermia, but they are both extremely dangerous and prevalent here in our state.
- Heat syncope is a sudden dizziness that can happen when you are active in hot weather. If you take a heart medication called a beta blocker or are not used to hot weather, you are even more likely to feel faint. Rest in a cool place, put your legs up, and drink water to make the dizzy feeling go away.
- Heat cramps are the painful tightening of muscles in your stomach, arms, or legs. Cramps can result from hard work or exercise. Though your body temperature and pulse usually stay normal during heat cramps, your skin may feel moist and cool. Find a way to cool your body down. Rest in the shade or in a cool building. Drink plenty of fluids, but not those with alcohol or caffeine.
- Heat edema is a swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot. Put your legs up to help reduce swelling. If that doesn’t work fairly quickly, check with your doctor.
- Heat exhaustion is a warning that your body can no longer keep itself cool. You might feel thirsty, dizzy, weak, uncoordinated, and nauseated. You may sweat a lot. Your body temperature may stay normal, but your skin may feel cold and clammy. Some people with heat exhaustion have a rapid pulse. Rest in a cool place and get plenty of fluids. If you don’t feel better soon, get medical care. Be careful—heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke can kill or cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. Although heat stroke mainly affects people over age 50, it also takes a regular toll on healthy young athletes.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
The hallmark symptom of heat stroke is a core body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. But fainting may be the first sign.
Other symptoms may include:
- Throbbing headache
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Lack of sweating despite the heat
- Red, hot, and dry skin
- Muscle weakness or cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Behavioral changes such as confusion, disorientation, or staggering
Heat Stroke requires immediate emergency medical attention for anyone at any age!
Avoiding Heat Related Issues
If often seems pretty common sense on how to avoid heat related illness. However they can sneak up on you. Working outside after our long Minnesota winters can make staying in the garden a little longer seem like a walk in the park--but wait there is an element of danger in the sun! Stay cool over the hot months ahead with some of these summer health tips and safety tips for seniors:
- Watch the forecast. When the local weather forecast predicts hot and steamy weather, make some indoor plans for those days. Find a senior center, library or visit a museum to stay in an air-conditioned space.
- Keep your home cool. Use your air conditioning throughout the summer if you have it. If A/C isn’t an option for you, cover windows in direct sunlight during the daytime to keep the house cooler, and open them at night to let in some fresh air. Use ceiling fans or floor fans, too.
- Dress appropriately. Avoid dark, thicker clothing in the summer and instead choose lighter colors and natural, breathable fabrics like cotton or linen.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of liquids including water and juices, but limit caffeinated and alcoholic drinks, as these act as diuretics and actually cause you to lose fluids.
- Avoid sun exposure during peak hours. The hottest hours of the day are generally between 10am and 3pm, so try to stay out of direct sunlight during those times. If you do go outdoors, seek shaded areas and remember to wear sunscreen and a hat or sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes.
- Limit strenuous outdoor activity. If you exercise outdoors, save it for the cooler morning or evening hours, as your body will be working a lot harder during the hottest hours of the day during strenuous physical activities. Take frequent breaks from whatever you’re doing to cool down and allow your body the time it needs to recover.
You may have heard that once you suffer from heat stroke you are more likely to be impacted by it again. While this may be true if the bodies ability to regulate heat is impacted by the stroke, however, heat intolerance experienced after a case of exertional heatstroke often goes away within a few months. “Most of it resolves over time,” says Douglas Casa, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, a non-profit dedicated to preventing sudden death in sport. So if you or a loved one have had an occurrence of heat stroke talk to your doctor but you may be able to slowly add in some outdoor activities in the summer and still be safe.