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Extreme Heat and the Elderly

The elderly suffer from heat related illnesses in disproportionately high numbers.  The hot/cold sense changes with age just like the other senses.  So does our ability to sweat and cool our body through evaporation.  Some elderly persons can’t tell if they are on the brink of heat exhaustion.   If you are helping care for the elderly or frail, remember the following: 

  • When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat.  Obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, some prescription drugs, and alcohol can create additional risks.
  • Everyone needs to drink a lot of extra fluid during extreme heat.  Please make water easily available to those in your care and encourage them to drink it, even if it means extra trips to the bathroom or a greater chance of an accident.  Check with the physician about residents or clients told to limit their fluid intake.
  • Some medications are dangerous to take if the person is exposed to intense sunshine. These include psychotropics (haloperidol or chlorpromazine) medications for Parkinson’s disease because they can prevent perspiration, and tranquilizers such as phenothiazines, butrophenones and thiozanthenes).  Sever antibiotics also have sun side effects. Check package inserts.
  • All long term care facilities must have one large air conditioned space (a day room or activities room) open to residents.  When the thermometer tops 90 and during ozone alerts, all residents should have frequent cool down times; those with respiratory problems should spend most of their time in air conditioning. 
  • Heat stroke can be life-threatening.  It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down.  Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. 
  • Warning signs of heat stroke very, but may include: red, hot dry skin; a temperature of 103 degrees or higher; rapid strong pulse; throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea; confusion; and unconsciousness.  If someone has these symptoms, cool the victim with a shower, bath, or wet towels while waiting for help.  Do not give liquids without medical advice; heat stroke may damage the kidneys.
  • Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness.  It can develop over several days or exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids.  Those most prone to heat exhaustion are elderly people, those with high blood pressure and those working or exercising in a high heat environment. 
  • With heat exhaustion, skin may be cool and moist.  The pulse rate will be fast and weak; breathing, fast and shallow.  There may be heavy sweating, paleness, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or fainting.  If heat exhaustion is suspected, have the person drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages; cool off with a shower; dress as light as possible; and rest.