Summer Safety for the Seniors In Your Life

Two senior women in the backyard on a summer day, wearing face masks and social distancing

Like many of you, I wasn’t sure winter would ever end here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born and raised in Minnesota, so you would think I’d be used to that weather. But honestly, the longer I live, the more trouble I have with winter and all its discomforts. Especially this past winter, when I was more cooped up inside than ever in an effort to avoid COVID-19 infection. Or spending time outdoors with friends because it was a safer way to avoid spreading the coronavirus!

One of my favorite things about Philadelphia is the length of spring. In the upper Midwest, it was often too short, if it happened at all. So, I am savoring the warmer weather and enjoying the sun. I’m going for walks through my neighborhood to see the trees and flowers blossoming.

I encourage everyone to get outside, any way you can. Breathe in some fresh air, talk to your neighbors again (while still wearing masks and keeping social distance), and listen to the birds.

Make Time to Prepare for Extreme Weather

I have some rituals I follow at the start of what I call the “better” seasons, when weather is at its best. In the 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 open the windows and air out my home. I inspect the air conditioner, and I make sure the grill is ready to go. I get my summer clothes out of storage and stock up on sunscreen.

For older adults, preparing for bad weather is critically important. I urge you to spend some time getting ready 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 older patients and their families. It’s vital to pay close attention to the health and well-being of our elderly loved ones during hot weather. No one likes to be exposed to 90-degree-plus temperatures and high humidity. But seniors 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. Medicines like diuretics can worsen the dehydrating effects of high temperatures. Sedatives or tranquilizers can blunt an individual’s awareness of discomfort. 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 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. And many seniors have been staying at home to minimize their risk of COVID-19 infection. They are also less inclined or able to keep windows open to help with cooling and for air circulation. So 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 location. Where you live can also contribute to your risk. Areas with dense housing and few trees are hotter, so you may need to take extra precautions.

10 Tips to Keep Seniors Safe and Cool

  1. Start with the home.

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

    If you don’t have air conditioning, never use fans in extreme heat without opening the windows as it 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 kept at room temperature. When it gets above ninety degrees they can become less effective.

  4. Go where it’s cool.

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

    Being indoors with other people is a little riskier these days because of COVID-19. But with masks and proper distancing, you can keep your risk low. And remember, heat stroke can be every bit as dangerous as the coronavirus!

    Shopping malls, movie theaters, senior centers, fitness and recreation centers, public swimming pools, and libraries provide welcome, 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 contact your local Agency on Aging to see if there are any programs to help seniors get air conditioners.

    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, so communication is crucial 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. 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.

    Everyone, including seniors, should dress for the weather. When it’s warm out, natural fabrics (such as cotton) can 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 them from harmful UV rays and helps preserve your vision.

  7. Learn the symptoms of hyperthermia.

    An abnormally high body temperature is known as hyperthermia. “Heat stroke” is an advanced, life-threatening form of this condition. 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 sought 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. 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.

    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.

With just a little preparation, everyone can stay safe and enjoy spring, summer, and fall.

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.