For people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, hot summer days can bring health risks.
This is because our ability to cope with the effects of high temperatures goes down as we age.
In addition, older people are more likely to have chronic conditions such as diabetes and lung disease, which can reduce their ability to cope with heatwaves even further.
According to Nina Abney, LMSW and Rachel Dewees, LLMSW, who work with older adults and their families at the University of Michigan Geriatrics Center, it is important for older people and their friends, families, and doctors to pay attention to hot weather to prevent harmful effects.
They offer five tips to help older adults stay safe during heatwaves:
Drink more water
People in their 60s and older already face a higher risk of dehydration in general, and hot weather can make it even worse.
Not having enough water in your system can lead to feeling faint and nauseous, which can lead to dizziness and falls.
Older people may not even know how they’re being affected by the heat.
So their loved ones, in-home caregivers and neighbors need to not only remind them to drink water but actually bring it to them during heat waves.
Stay in a cool place
Good old-fashioned practices like running air conditioning and fans, closing curtains and blinds and staying out of the sun during the heat of the day, can really help older adults stay safe and cool.
So can cool showers or baths, running cool water over parts of the body or keeping cool, wet cloths handy.
For those who do not have air conditioning, or are worried about running it too much for financial reasons, many communities offer free cooling centers during the hottest times of the year.
Public libraries, recreation centers, civic buildings, churches or other places of worship and senior centers all offer free opportunities to get inside a cool building on the hottest days.
Skip outdoor activities, or do them early
The garden may need your attention, the dog may need to get exercise, or your regular walking partners may want to keep up their routine.
But ultra-hot weather is not the time to stick to routines.
Give yourself – or your loved ones – permission to skip the wedding, the walking or the workout for a few days. Hire a neighbor to walk the pet or mow the lawn.
It is also probably a good idea to skip alcohol and caffeine, or at least cut back on them, during a heatwave. They can also affect your response to heat and the ability to recognize problems.
Don’t feel well? Act fast
By the time older adults start feeling the worst effects of high heat, they may require emergency treatment.
But hospital emergency rooms are not the place anyone wants to spend a hot summer day, and they can hold special risks for older adults.
Older people should call their doctor’s office or clinic before they have an emergency.
Besides feeling faint or dizzy, other symptoms to watch out for include nausea, headache, feeling overly tired, having a rapid pulse, or feeling muscle cramps.
If someone’s behavior changes – for instance, if they are confused or combative, or delirious – that is a very serious sign.
If you take medications for blood pressure, heart problems or other conditions, they can reduce the amount you sweat and affect circulation, which helps the body cool down.
If you have diabetes, it can affect your blood vessels and sweat glands, and heat can also change your body’s ability to use insulin.
Talk to your pharmacist or doctor’s office to find out any special heat-related factors you need to think about given your health conditions.
Get together with others, check on older adults in your life
For other people who live alone, or who are the sole caregiver for a loved one with special health needs, heat waves can bring special risks.
If this describes you, now is the time to reach out and take people up on their offer to come to visit or go on an outing to a cool location.
If you know an older person who lives alone, whether they live next door or across the country, this is the time to stop by, call or connect electronically.
If you are near enough, offer to drive an older person to an air-conditioned place, or just take a ride in a cooled-down car.
Since heat-related illness can sneak up on people and bring a risk of fainting, checking in is never a bad idea.