Elders and Heat Waves: a Dangerous Combination

Caregiver, patient expert

The heat wave we've been having in most parts of the country has made many people a bit crabby. Even those who like heat tend to wilt when there is no break. However, for many elders, extreme heat can be much more than uncomfortable. Extreme heat can  kill.

One of the many clues that my mother-in-law was ready to move across the avenue from her condominium to a wonderful nursing home was her response one hot summer to an intense heat wave we had here in the Dakotas (yes it gets hot on the prairie).

She would have every window  shut tight and  her fan and air conditioner turned off. No circulation. No cool air. Nothing but dead heat.

I'd get  the Ac and fan turned on - not too cool, but some air moving -  before I left her  from my daily visit. Sure enough, when I'd get back the next day her condo  was like a hot tomb. Suffocating.

I'd  reset everything, she'd undo it. Every day the same. One day, I found her even more paranoid and disoriented than usual. I  convinced her to drink some fluids and used a damp, cool wash cloth to wipe her face, chest and arms. She rested and was eventually better, but I knew she could not endure another summer alone. Her situation was not unusual for elders, but at least she had someone to look after her.

Each summer, we read stories in the newspapers about elderly people who are found dead by police and others.  Heat waves will take them out. Dehydration is a big issue, plus many of these elders can't afford air conditioning. It's a dangerous situation.

Danger signs for you or your loved one that could mean heat exhaustion or even heat stroke include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, headache, paleness and nausea.

Meanwhile, there are things you can do for yourself and your elders. These tips are but a few from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site:

  • Cool, nonalcoholic beverages. (If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink when the weather is hot. Also, avoid extremely cold liquids because they can cause cramps.)
  • Rest
  • Take a cool shower, bath, or sponge bath
  • If possible, seek an air-conditioned environment. (If you don't have air conditioning, consider visiting an air-conditioned shopping mall or public library to cool off.)
  • Wear lightweight clothing
  • If possible, remain indoors in the heat of the day
  • Do not engage in strenuous activities.

We, as caregivers, need to not only look after our own, but keep in mind elderly friends and neighbors who may be at risk during these hot months. Even if you have to call social services to check on someone, it's better than letting them die.

For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.