By Virginia Hannon, Geriatric APRN, Western Connecticut Medical Group Southbury Primary Care
Not everyone is aware that summer weather and activities may be challenging for older adults. Senior citizens react differently to hot weather than younger people. They are typically more susceptible to dehydration and heat-related illnesses, and may become disoriented by certain summer activities.
Older adults are also at an increased risk of developing complications related to COVID-19, due to their age and common underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, as our communities reopen, it’s important to stay vigilant and take precautions to keep them safe during the summer.
Included here are six ways to help keep the senior citizens in your life active, healthy, and safe this summer.
1: Pay Attention to COVID-19 Risks
It’s important to consider the risks of specific activities for your older loved one in this new COVID-19 environment. To help you decide which activities are appropriate for your senior, assess how comfortable they are participating in public activities, and their individual risk of catching COVID-19.
In general, if your loved one is at high risk of COVID-19 complications, it may a good idea to avoid activities that involve a crowd, such as a large family celebration, amusement park, or movie theater. You might want to consider lower-risk activities such as small, outdoor family events where your older loved one can practice social distancing and wear a face covering.
2: Take Travel Precautions for Seniors
Experts are recommending that people — especially those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 — stay close to home and avoid long-distance travel this summer. If you must travel with an older adult, take steps to reduce their risk of COVID-19 infection, such as frequent hand washing, and check to see what public health regulations are in place in the area you plan to visit.
If your loved one is living with dementia, changing their environment by going on a trip can be difficult and confusing. If you must travel, opting for familiar locations instead of new destinations may help your senior feel safe and more comfortable. Also, be sure to have the person with dementia wear an identification bracelet. Wearing identification can help them find their way to the group again if they wander off.
3: Hydration, Hydration, Hydration
Dehydration can lead to several serious complications, such as heat exhaustion or increased risk of a fall, particularly among seniors. Senior citizens are generally more susceptible to dehydration than younger adults because of changes in the way the body regulates its temperature and a reduction in the amount of sweat produced.
Some senior citizens may take medications, such as diuretics or cardiac medications, which make them more prone to dehydration. Speak with your senior’s healthcare clinician to find the right balance between staying hydrated and managing other conditions. Medication doses may need to be reduced during the summer months.
Some senior citizens may avoid drinking water because of the effort it takes to get up and go to the bathroom, especially if they use a walker or are in a wheelchair. Additionally, because the senses dull with age, seniors may not feel thirsty so they may not realize they need to drink water until they are already dehydrated.
There are many ways a caregiver can help a senior citizen stay hydrated. Encourage seniors to drink plenty of water even if they aren’t thirsty, especially in hot weather. For most people, water is the best drink to stay hydrated. Avoid alcohol, sugary beverages, and caffeinated drinks because these can add to dehydration.
Learn the signs of dehydration and check in frequently. If you notice that a senior is losing weight, has very dark colored urine, is experiencing leg cramps, or is feeling weak, nauseous, fatigued, or vomiting, they may be dehydrated. Instead of asking if they are thirsty, just hand them a drink. This is especially important for elderly with dementia because they may not know to drink water. Keeping the fridge stocked with plenty of water is convenient and a helpful reminder.
4: Stay Cool
Checking that seniors have regular access to air conditioning (AC) is important to help them avoid dehydration and other heat-related illnesses. In hot weather, a fan is not enough to stay cool, so check that the home AC system is functioning properly. If AC at home isn’t available or effective enough during the daytime hours, make sure your senior has access to a nearby, safe location with AC. AC is especially important for seniors with respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because heat and humidity can aggravate their breathing.
5: Protect Skin and Eyes from the Sun
When planning outdoor activities, remember that seniors may be more photosensitive, or sensitive to the sun, than younger adults because: some medications can lead to increased photosensitivity; thinning skin can leave seniors vulnerable to sunburn; and, eye conditions such as macular degeneration or cataracts can cause eyes to be sensitive to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
To avoid sun-related injury, seniors should apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 about 30 minutes before going outside, and then reapply it about every two hours. Protective clothing, such as hats that shade the face and cover the head, and light-colored, light-weight cotton fabric shirts and pants are also useful to block the sun’s rays and help seniors stay cool. They should also wear sunglasses with UV protection lenses that are UV400.
Consider limiting outdoor time to early in the morning or later in the evening because the sun’s rays are strongest between 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
6: Build and Use a Support System
A support system is incredibly important for seniors year round, especially for those who don’t have family nearby. It’s especially important now as COVID-19 has many seniors staying home more than usual. Building a senior’s support network can be as simple as introducing yourself to his or her neighbors and asking them to keep an eye out for your loved one.
Set up a system so your senior can let others know they are “okay.” For instance, if living in a senior housing community, your senior can put a note or a magnet on their front door every morning and remove it at night. They can also send short, daily text messages to family or friends as they go about their day.
Whatever system you choose to use, make sure to pay attention to it and question any irregularities. A support system can be the difference between safety and catastrophe.
The bottom line: By taking special precautions, monitoring COVID-19 risks, and making sure to establish a support system, the senior under your care can have an active, healthy, and safe summer.
Did you know that Nuvance Health offers Virtual Visits for primary and specialty care so our patients can have a remote consultation with healthcare clinicians from the comfort of their home? For more information, to schedule an appointment, or to find a healthcare clinician, visit nuvancehealth.org/virtualvisits.
Amy Forni, Manager, Public Relations