Summertime! Most everybody wants to spend time outside, enjoy the long afternoons, feel the sun on their face, and see nature in full bloom. Experts in elder care agree that that spending time in the sun can be beneficial to mood and mental function, and moderate sun exposure promotes the production of vitamin D, which may reduce the risk of bone fractures, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. But with hot weather comes health hazards, especially to the elderly. Extra care needs to be taken to make sure that hot weather and strong sunlight don’t cause harm.
As bodies age, ability to regulate body temperature can become weaker, sweating may be impaired, heat stress may be not be noticed, and dehydration can rapidly occur. These changes may be a natural result of aging, or may be a side effect of commonly-used medications such as diuretics, antidepressants and incontinence drugs, among many others.
It’s easy for older folks to overheat or get dehydrated, but on the other hand it’s not uncommon for the elderly to feel chilly even in warm weather. To balance comfort and safety, loose, light-colored, layered clothing that can easily be added or removed is a practical way to stay comfortable as conditions change.
Make sure that plenty of cool water is on hand to keep hydrated—older folks should drink a little more water than usual, and drink before they get thirsty, to stay out of danger. Soft drinks, iced tea and coffee, and fruit juices that are loaded with sugar are not as effective as plain water to manage thirst and maintain hydration. At least four ounces of water every waking hour—or 8 ounces or more if exercising or sweating—is recommended to maintain hydration levels and avoid heat-related health hazards.
In the heat of summer, air conditioning can be vitally important to keep seniors safe. Fans alone are not enough—they are ineffective in high humidity and when sweating is impaired. Caregivers should regularly check on seniors who are dependent upon air conditioning to make sure their AC systems are working and reliable, and be alert for any signs of distress. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur rapidly, so familiarize yourself with the symptoms:
Heat isn’t the only concern during the summer months. Overexposure to strong, direct sunlight can also do serious harm. Aging skin is thinner, more delicate and sunburns easily.
When older folks go outside during the strong sunlight hours from 10 AM to 4 PM, they should be wearing clothing that offers protection from sunlight. Long sleeves and pant legs, full-coverage skirts or dresses, and wide-brimmed hats are great for protecting sensitive skin. Good-quality sunscreen on hands and faces and limiting time outdoors are also important protective measures. To avoid sunburn, start with no more than 15 minutes of exposure the first time out, and add 15 minutes or less of additional exposure each day.
Sunlight can also interact with certain medications, causing painful rashes or even permanent damage (phototoxicity). Certain heart medications, NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and some antibiotics such as tetracycline can be dangerous when combined with sunlight, so check with a doctor or pharmacist to find out if there is any cause for concern.
All dressed up and ready to go? Then get out there and enjoy the beautiful weather—safely!
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