I clearly remember entering my mother-in-law’s apartment the last summer before she went into a nursing home. The curtains would always be drawn until I came at noon to fix her lunch and straighten up. The windows were tightly closed. She was too paranoid to even reach out into her hallway to retrieve her newspaper, so she surely wouldn’t have had her windows open. Her air conditioning unit would be off. The result? Often a high eighties reading on her wall thermometer – or worse. That, coupled with her fragile sense of hunger and/or thirst, created a perfect scenario for dehydration and heatstroke.
It was a losing battle. I’d turn on her air conditioner if the outside air warranted it, or open windows if it did not. I’d encourage her to have lunch and drink cool liquids. I knew, however, that as soon as I left to go to my next elder stop, she would close any windows I had opened, or turn off her air. For that reason, along with many others, Alice eventually moved into a very good nursing facility.
The heat and humidity we’ve had this spring and summer has brought back memories of Alice and her apartment/sauna, so I’ve looked into the subject a bit deeper. Here are some things you can do to keep your elder (or yourself and kids, for that matter) safe during heat-waves.
1. If your elder lives somewhere without central air, find a way to install a wall air-conditioning unit. If there is a power outage in the area where the elder lives, try to move him or her to a place where there is air conditioning. A facility should have a backup generator, so if there is an outage where your elder resides in a facility, he or she should be safe. It’s something to ask about, if you are checking out facilities. Is there air conditioning, and do they have a generator? If not, I’d say look elsewhere. This is not about luxury, it’s about safety.
2. An elder may not even realize that he or she is hot. Someone needs to check on elderly people, frequently, when the temperatures get close to 90.
3. Bathing is often a problem, with an elder. Many, through fear of falling, paranoia from dementia or even just lack of strength, may resist taking a bath or shower. Try to make a bathing experience feel safe, and encourage a cool bath. If this doesn’t work, a sponge bath, or even cool wash cloths placed on the skin, can help bring the down body temperature.
4. If your elder is still active, be sure he or she knows to cut down on gardening or walking, when it is hot. Elders shouldn’t be doing heavy exercise in the heat. They should also wear loose, light-colored clothing that breathes (like cotton, or some of these new athletic “wicking” materials).
5. Nag elders about wearing a hat whenever they are in the sun. The bigger the brim, the better. This can help them keep cooler and avoid sunburn, as well. Tell Dad that his head may burn without one (true). Tell Mom that she can prevent sun-related brown spots on her face. Appeal to their pride, and you may get some cooperation.
6. Speaking of sunburn, don’t forget a good sunblock if they are going outside. Older, dryer skin will not recover as quickly from a burn, and heat will dry it out even more.
7. Pester your elders about drinking fluids. My mother used to get irritated with the nursing home people, because they watched her fluids so closely. She was very tiny and had little appetite for anything. They would encourage food, but actually stand and watch her while she drank fluids, if she didn’t go through enough for the day. They were right. Keeping hydrated can be lifesaving.
8. Be very wary of taking elders to an event where they will be standing in direct sun for long periods. Heat exhaustion and or heat stroke (more serious) can happen at any age, but elders are more susceptible. Don’t take it for granted that, because you are enjoying the “warm sunshine,” your elder is okay. He or she may feel all right, but could be in danger.
9. If the elder feels faint or dizzy, get him or her into shade, try to administer fluids, use cool cloths.
10. If nausea, vomiting or confusion is present, call 911, get the elder into shade and if possible, use cool compresses while you await help.
Published On: June 25, 2007