Keeping Seniors Safe in the Summer Heat

By May 17, 2018December 31st, 2020Expert Advice Well-being
Did you know the elderly are more vulnerable to hot weather? Dr. Heidi Syropoulos gives her tips for keeping seniors safe in the summer heat.

Like many of you I wasn’t sure winter would ever end here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Considering I was born and raised in Minnesota, you would think I’d be used to that weather. But honestly, the longer I live, the more difficulty I have with winter and all its inconveniences.

One of my favorite things about Philadelphia is the length of spring — in the upper Midwest, it was often too short, or even nonexistent. So, I am reveling in the warmer weather and enjoying the sun and walks through my neighborhood to see the trees and flowers blossoming. I encourage everyone to get outside, however you can accomplish it, to breathe in some fresh air, talk to your neighbors again, and listen to the birds.

Make Time to Prepare for Extreme Weather

In addition to basking in the wonderfulness of spring, I also have a bit of a ritual at the start of what I call the “better” seasons — spring and fall— where weather is at its best. At the beginning of fall, I remind myself to get my car ready for winter, my husband tunes up the snowblower, and we make sure we have wood for the fireplace. When spring arrives, I take advantage of the not-too-hot and not-too-cold weather to open the windows and air out my home, inspect the air conditioner, make sure the grill is ready to go, get my summer clothes out of storage, and stock up on sunscreen.

For the elderly, preparing for bad weather is critically important. Even though you’d probably prefer to just smile and enjoy the spring weather, I urge you to also spend a bit of time thinking ahead and preparing for hot summer days ahead. They’ll be here before we know it!

Helping Seniors Beat the Heat

Hot weather was something I always discussed with my geriatric patients and their families. It’s also important for friends and family to pay close attention to the health and well-being of their elderly loved ones during hot weather. No one likes to be exposed to 90-degree-plus temperatures and high humidity, but seniors account for a disproportionate number of heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. There are several reasons why:

  • Diseases. Some diseases, such as peripheral vascular disease or heart disease, make it more difficult for the body to circulate blood and cool down properly. Other diseases, like dementia or diabetes, make it a challenge to be aware of the sensation of hot temperatures.
  • Medications/drugs. Medications, such as diuretics, can exacerbate the dehydrating effects of high temperatures. Any drug that is a sedative or tranquilizer can blunt an individual’s awareness of discomfort, including alcohol.
  • Effects of aging. As we grow older, normal processes of aging make our bodies less efficient at regulating body temperature and responding to thirst appropriately. So, seniors may have less ability to sense when they are too hot or thirsty.
  • Mobility and travel limitations. Many seniors who live on their own cannot venture far from their homes or apartments. This may be for mobility reasons, but it can also be due to safety concerns. Because they are less inclined or able to keep windows open to help with cooling and for air circulation, elderly residents are much more vulnerable to rising indoor temperatures if the power goes out. And they may be unable to easily leave for a cooler environment.

10 Tips to Keep Seniors Safe and Cool

  1. Start with the home.

    Clean out those air conditioning filters and explore options for keeping out heat from the sun, like using shades, blinds, or draperies on sunny windows. Outdoor awnings can also can make a big difference in keeping heat out of the house. Buy a portable fan for the room you spend the most time in.

  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 medications are affected by high temperatures. Pills are often kept at room temperature, so some may be affected by temperatures above 90 and could become less effective.

  4. Go where it’s cool.

    If you don’t have a functioning air conditioner at home, go someplace with more comfortable and safer temperatures. Shopping malls, movie theaters, and libraries provide welcome, cool spaces and afford a great opportunity to get out of the house and get some exercise, without the exhaustion of the heat. You can also contact your local Agency on Aging to see if there are any programs to help seniors get air conditioners.

  5. Stay connected

    High temperatures can be life-threatening, so communication plays an important role in ensuring the safety of the elderly. Seniors, let your friends and family know if you’ll be spending time outdoors, even if you’re only gardening. It’s also great to meet your neighbors and 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, it is not unreasonable for you to check on loved ones at least twice a day when it’s extremely hot.

  6. Dress for success.

    Everyone, including seniors, should dress for the weather. When it’s warm out, some people find natural fabrics (such as cotton) to be cooler than synthetic fibers. Stock your summer wardrobe with light-colored and loose-fitting clothes to help keep you cool and comfortable. And don’t forget your eyes! Wearing sunglasses protects your eyes from harmful UV rays and helps preserve your vision.

  7. Learn the symptoms of hyperthermia.

    An abnormally high body temperature is a condition known as hyperthermia, and “heat stroke” is an advanced, life-threatening form of hyperthermia. Know the warning signs and get medical attention immediately if you or anyone you know is experiencing these symptoms:

    • Body temperature greater than 104 degrees
    • Change 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

    Once you’ve requested medical attention, 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. The elderly especially need the extra sun protection to help keep them healthy. Caregivers, family, and friends can gently remind loved ones about applying sunscreen and help them put it on, when necessary. Hats are also a great idea, especially for those with light-colored hair and those with only distant memories of a full head of hair.

  9. Apply bug spray.

    The elderly are particularly prone to West Nile Virus and encephalitis, both 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 getting mosquito bites.

  10. Exercise wisely.

    If you enjoy outdoor activities in the summer months, such as 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.

With just a little preparation, everyone can stay safe and enjoy spring and summer and fall…just in time to start thinking about that first snow storm!

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

 

Dr. Heidi J. Syropoulos

About 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 new position is the opportunity to help an entire population of people through the benefits of their health plan.