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Staying Cool in the Summertime

Wellness & Prevention

5 Hot Weather Tips that Could Save an Older Adult’s Life

These five simple tips can help keep you – or your older friends, neighbors and loved ones – safe and cool during a heat wave

“We’re having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave…” “It’s too… darn… hot…” “It’s like a heat wave… burning in my heart…”

For people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, these classic song lyrics may bring back fond memories of hot summer days. But anyone old enough to remember those tunes playing on the radio should pay special attention to their health in hot weather. That is because our ability to cope with the effects of high temperatures, high humidity and hot sun goes down as we age. Plus, older people are more likely to have chronic conditions such as diabetes and lung disease, which can reduce their ability to cope with heat waves even further.

During especially hot times like this week, it is important for older adults and their neighbors, friends, relatives and health care providers to pay attention to those effects – and work to prevent them. That is according to Nina Abney, LMSW and Rachel Dewees, LLMSW, two social workers who work with older adults and their families at the University of Michigan Geriatrics Center.

They offer these tips to help older adults stay safe during heat waves: 1. Drink more water than you think you need. Then drink some more. 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.

“Dehydration is a big worry for older adults, because it affects them differently,” says Abney, who heads social work and community programs for the center. “They 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.” She adds that older adults with dementia have special risks, because the changes in their brain may keep them from being able to communicate their distress.

2. Make – or find – a cool place for yourself or your loved one 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.

"Seek help for physical symptoms, before it gets to be an emergency" Rachel Dewees, LLMSW

Dewees, who runs the Turner Senior Wellness Program at U-M, notes that community senior centers can offer a place to connect with others during heat waves and beyond. “Even if it’s not listed as an official cooling station, they’re prepared for people to stop in any time they’re open, and they’re free,” she says. Movie theaters, restaurants and malls also offer refuge.

If you know an older person who might need a cool-down, this is a great time to offer to take them shopping or to the movies.

3. 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 weeding, 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 heat wave. They can also affect your response to heat and ability to recognize problems.

4. 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. “Seek help for any physical symptoms you might be feeling, by calling your doctor’s office or clinic, before they become an emergency,” Abney recommends. “They can give advice over the phone, and also help steer you to resources in your area.” 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.

5. Get together with others – or 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, says Abney. If this describes you, now is the time to reach out and take people up on their offer to come 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.

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