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How Seniors Can Navigate the Pitfalls of Summer

Senior Adult Man Reading a Book in Backyard

Some people love the summertime. Others can’t wait for the heat to break.

Whichever camp you fall into, it’s important to take good care of yourself in the summertime. Not just so you can make the most of this season, but also to avoid some of the serious health hazards that the summer sun, heat, and wildlife can represent.

I encourage you to take sensible precautions, but also, spend time outside if you can. Breathe in some fresh air, talk to your neighbors, and listen to the birds. It’s good for you.

The Biggest Summer Health Risks for Older People

When I was practicing geriatrics, hot weather was something I always discussed with my patients and their families. It’s vital to pay close attention to the health and well-being of our older loved ones when it’s hot outside. No one likes to be exposed to 90-degree-plus temperatures and high humidity. But older people face a much higher rate of heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. There are several reasons why:

  • Diseases. Some diseases, like peripheral vascular disease or heart disease, make it harder for the body to cool down properly. Other diseases, like dementia or diabetes, can make people less aware of the sensation of hot temperatures.
  • Medications/drugs. Certain drugs, like diuretics, can worsen the dehydrating effects of high temperatures. Sedatives and tranquilizers can make it harder for a person to be aware of how much discomfort the heat is causing them. That includes alcohol.
  • Effects of aging. As we grow older, normal aging processes make our bodies less able to control their body temperature. So, seniors may have trouble sensing when they are too hot or thirsty.
  • Mobility and location. There are older people who live on their own that cannot venture far from their homes or apartments. This may be for mobility reasons, but it can also be due to safety concerns. Some of these people may also be less inclined, or able, to keep windows open to help with cooling and air circulation. That can make them much more vulnerable to rising indoor temperatures if the power goes out. And they may not be able to leave for a cooler location. Where you live can also contribute to your risk. If you live in an area with dense housing and few trees, it may be hotter and you may need to take extra precautions.

10 Tips to Keep Seniors Safe and Cool

1. Start at home.

Clean out those air conditioning filters! And explore ways to keep out heat from the sun. You can use shades, blinds, or draperies on sunny windows. Outdoor awnings can also make a big difference in keeping out the heat.

You can also buy a portable fan for the room you spend the most time in. But remember, if you don’t have air conditioning, never use fans in extreme heat without opening the windows. Doing this can create a convection oven effect. If you need help paying for high energy bills or other services, programs are available to help seniors.

2. Stay hydrated.

Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when the temperature goes up. And don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water — drink water all day to avoid dehydration.

3. Talk to your doctor.

Check to see if any of your medicines are affected by heat. Pills are often best kept at room temperature. When it gets above 90 degrees they can become less effective.

4. Go where it’s cool.

If you don’t have a working air conditioner at home, try to go someplace with more comfortable and safer temperatures.

Shopping malls, movie theaters, senior centers, fitness and recreation centers, and libraries are good choices of cool spaces. They offer a great way to get out of the house and get some exercise, without the exhaustion of the heat. You can also visit a public swimming pool. If you need help getting an air conditioner, you can contact your local Agency on Aging to see if there are any programs to help.

If transportation is an issue, SEPTA’s CCT Connect paratransit service may be a solution.

If all else fails, there’s always the option of taking a nice cool bath.

5. Stay connected.

High temperatures can be life-threatening. Always remember to communicate and let your friends and family know if you’ll be spending time outdoors, even if you’re only gardening. Prepare a list of emergency phone numbers to keep in an easy-to-access area. Here’s a Senior Care Emergency Checklist you can fill out.

For caregivers, check on loved ones at least twice a day when it’s extremely hot.

6. Dress for success.

When it’s warm out, natural fabrics (such as cotton) can be cooler than synthetic fibers. Stock your summer wardrobe with light-colored, loose-fitting clothes to help you stay cool and comfortable.

And don’t forget your eyes! Wearing sunglasses protects them from harmful UV rays and helps preserve your vision.

7. Learn the symptoms of hyperthermia.

“Heat stroke” is an advanced, life-threatening form hyperthermia. This is when you have an abnormally high body temperature. Be aware of the symptoms:

  • Body temperature greater than 104 degrees
  • Changes in behavior, such as acting confused, agitated, or grouchy
  • Dry, flushed skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Heavy breathing or rapid pulse
  • Not sweating, even if it’s hot out
  • Fainting

If you or anyone you know experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Then, the person suffering from hyperthermia should get out of the heat, lie down, and place ice packs on the body.

8. Wear sunscreen and hats.

Everyone — young and old — should wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors. But it’s especially important for older people.

Caregivers, family, and friends can gently remind loved ones about applying sunscreen. Help them put it on when necessary. Hats are also a great idea, especially for those with light-colored hair. (And for those who have only distant memories of a full head of hair!)

9. Apply bug spray.

Older individuals are prone to West Nile Virus and encephalitis, both of which are spread by mosquitoes. If you spend a lot of time outdoors (especially at night), use insect repellent to help reduce the risk of mosquito bites.

10. Exercise wisely and don’t overdo it.

If you enjoy outdoor activities in the summer months, like walking or gardening, make sure to wear weather-appropriate clothing and protective gear. It is also important to keep track of time. Do not stay out for long periods. And make sure to drink even more water than usual — before, during, and after your time outside.

Also consider getting outdoor exercise earlier in the morning, or later in the evening, when the sun is not at its peak.

Doing work around your home? Take the heat and your health into account. Rest frequently. Drink fluids. No project or chore is worth a fall, a stroke, or a heart attack.

With just a little preparation, everyone can stay safe and enjoy summer to the fullest.

Dr. Heidi J. Syropoulos

I joined Independence Blue Cross in 2015 after practicing Geriatrics for nearly 30 years. In my current role I function as the medical liaison to our Government Markets team, serving as a subject matter expert on clinical medicine and healthcare delivery. What I love about my position is the opportunity to help an entire population of people through the benefits of their health plan.