Detecting symptoms of dehydration in elderly loved ones can be difficult, especially when you aren’t with them daily. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dehydration, which can sometimes lead to serious health conditions. The signs aren’t always clear. Knowing what to look for can help prevent damage from happening before their condition gets out of hand.
What Is Dehydration?
Generally, dehydration means losing more fluids than you take in. The human body is about 60% water and it is in every cell, tissue, and organ. The body relies on water and other fluids to perform normal functions. It helps you digest your food, eliminate waste from your body, regulate your temperature, and a lot more.
You can’t live for more than 4 days without water. When your body doesn’t have enough, it isn’t able to perform all the functions it normally does effectively. Dehydration ranges from mild to severe. Mild dehydration refers to a loss of 2% of your total body weight through fluid loss. A person is at risk of health problems with mild dehydration, especially if they have existing heart or kidney problems.
Severe dehydration is the loss of 4% of your body weight or more. Once dehydration reaches this level, it increases the risk of a broad range of health conditions including:
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Heat exhaustion or heat stroke
- Swelling of the brain
- Bedsores in bed-ridden patients
- Kidney failure
Why Seniors Are So Susceptible to Dehydration
Seniors have different lifestyles according to their health, mobility, and personal preferences. Even those seniors who still maintain a high level of health and fitness experience many common age-related changes. These changes often make them more vulnerable to the effects of dehydration, either directly or indirectly. Some reasons that it is a common problem include:
- More Medications – As our age goes up, so does the number of medications we take. The average number of prescriptions per year for people aged 65 to 69 years of age is 15. For those aged 80 to 84, the number increases to 18. Of the common drugs prescribed, some are diuretics while others cause increased sweating and a loss of fluid.
- Decreased Thirst – People tend to get less thirsty as they age. Some simply don’t want to go to the trouble of getting up to get a drink every time they could use one. If they have to rely on someone else to get a drink for them, they might not want to ask.
- A Decrease in Kidney Function– The aging process leads to a decrease in kidney function and an inability to conserve fluids. This difference is more pronounced in seniors over the age of 70.
- Illness– Like children, the elderly often lose fluid when they get ill. Vomiting and/or diarrhea can lead to dehydration quickly.
The elderly don’t always realize they aren’t getting enough fluids. Everyone doesn’t have the same needs. The foods they eat daily play a role in keeping them hydrated, too. People who eat plenty of high water-content foods like soups, vegetables, and fruit can drink less without risking dehydration.
Symptoms of Dehydration in Elderly Loved Ones
Once you realize the importance of recognizing the symptoms of dehydration in elderly loved ones, the next step is knowing what those signs are. Some are more obvious and easier to spot while others might be hidden or associated with other health conditions. These signs include:
- Difficulty walking
- Dry mouth
- Inability to sweat or produce tears
- Low blood pressure
- Sunken eyes
- Rapid heart rate
- Low urine output
If you consider the age at which a person can obtain Medicare health insurance as defining seniors, anyone aged 65 years or older is considered elderly. But any two people of the same age are very different in their range of activity. Someone who is confined to a bed and relies on a caregiver for their care also relies on the caregiver to recognize the symptoms of dehydration. Elderly people who remain active might notice symptoms before anyone else. That’s why everyone needs a basic understanding of the symptoms of dehydration.
Preventing Dehydration in the Elderly
If your loved one relies on you or someone else for care, you can help prevent dehydration by ensuring they consume adequate amounts of fluid during the day. Make sure they have healthy, water-content foods available to them daily. Observe their urine output to make sure it’s adequate. Dark urine or infrequency of urination are classic symptoms of dehydration.
Seniors should learn to drink fluids regularly, even when they don’t feel thirsty. Keep water bottles beside their bed or chair so it’s always available. Even if your elderly loved one is still mobile and on the go, encourage them to drink more. Their risk of getting dehydrated is even greater if they engage in activities like exercise without compensating for the additional fluid loss.
How Much Water Is Enough?
Most of us have heard the advice to drink eight glasses of water a day. This rule is unrealistic for some people and it doesn’t take the differences between individuals into account. The fact is that scientific research doesn’t back that idea up either.
We all have a normal body water to body weight ratio, which differs from person to person. Other factors, such as the foods a person eats, also have an effect on this ratio. If they eat a lot of vegetables and fruits and aren’t taking dehydrating drugs like laxatives and diuretics, they won’t need as much water to stay hydrated.
Another common myth is that drinking caffeinated beverages like black tea and coffee can cause dehydration. It’s true, caffeine is dehydrating. It just isn’t dehydrating to the degree that causes a problem. Also, most caffeinated drinks contain water as their base liquid. Therefore, you get more hydration than the caffeine will counteract. As long as the person drinks caffeinated beverages in moderation, they shouldn’t cause a problem. The same is true for alcohol. Being a senior doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a diverse menu and even take advantage of Happy Hour.
Another consideration is the person’s weight. Larger people usually require more water to stay hydrated. Some people perspire more or are more active. These factors cause some people to need more than 8 glasses of water each day and others to need less.
Keeping Track of Symptoms of Dehydration in Elderly Loved Ones
One of the best ways to keep track of dehydration symptoms is by monitoring body weight. Those seniors who have had problems with dehydration in the past should be weighed every morning. Losing more than two pounds after one day indicates dehydration. If they complain about thirst or have a headache, these symptoms only confirm the diagnosis. This is also a good gauge for anyone in a nursing home or who has cardiac problems.
You can perform a simple test if you suspect a loved one is dehydrated. Pinch the skin up on the back of their hand. If it doesn’t go back into shape quickly after you let go, it’s probably due to dehydration.
Changes in the appearance of the skin aren’t as easy to notice in the elderly as they are in young people. Wrinkles and sagging skin are something they have every day. Difficulty in recognizing symptoms of dehydration in elderly loved ones results in delays in getting diagnosed. As a result, seniors are often hospitalized for severe dehydration that is serious, and sometimes life-threatening, rather than someone stepping in and addressing the dehydration when it is only mild to moderate.
The Risk of Heat Exhaustion in the Elderly
Once an elderly person becomes dehydrated, it alters their body’s ability to regulate temperature. That means when they go outdoors in the heat, they’re at a far greater risk of developing heat exhaustion.
Even if you’ve never thought about it, seniors typically don’t sweat as much as younger people. They also store fat differently. These factors make it more difficult to regulate heat.
When seniors go outdoors in the hot sun, their internal body temperature rises too. Dehydration adds to the problem, along with other lifestyle and health factors including:
- Chronic illnesses
- Salt-restricted diets
- Prescription medications that reduce the amount of sweating
- Living in hot climates such as those in Arizona
What Is Heat Exhaustion?
Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats. Symptoms might include:
– A weak, rapid pulse
– Heavy sweating
– Muscle cramps
– Low blood pressure upon standing
What Is Heat Stroke?
Heatstroke usually occurs with prolonged exposure to physical exertion in high temperatures. It happens when the body temperature reaches 104°F or higher. It often occurs during the summer months and is more likely to occur in children or the elderly.
Without immediate treatment, heatstroke can damage the brain, kidneys, heart, and muscles. The longer it takes to receive treatment, the more the damage grows. Prolonging treatment increases the person’s risk of serious complications, coma, or death.
Elderly people are often cold-natured, wearing long sleeves and pants even during the hottest summer months. They may take medications like blood thinners that make them feel colder than they really are. Dehydration makes them even more vulnerable to the hot sun. Combined with their decreased ability to regulate body temperature and perceive thirst, they are at a greater risk of heatstroke.
Symptoms of heatstroke include a high body temperature, altered mental state, acting confused, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing, racing heart rate, flushed skin, and headache.
Heatstroke is an emergency condition. Call 911 and get the person out of the sun. Remove any excess clothing and use any available water to help cool them off. Dehydration from not drinking enough water is a leading cause of heatstroke.
What You Can Do
It’s impossible to track symptoms of dehydration in elderly loved ones when they live on their own. You can make sure they always have access to water and have healthy water-content foods available. You can also educate them on the importance of drinking plenty of water, even if they don’t feel thirsty.
If you are available to your loved one, offer them something to drink regularly. It’s often best to offer drinks on a schedule. If your loved one has a caregiver, make sure they do the same.
Some people don’t like to drink water. Offering beverages that they like will help encourage them to drink more often. Consider getting them drinks that contain electrolytes such as sports drinks.
Most elderly people don’t drink a lot at one time. Don’t try to force them to put away a super-sized soft drink from the local drive-through at one time! Drinking less more frequently often works best.
One issue that people often overlook is the possibility of incontinence problems. Seniors don’t always like to discuss these personal issues with their loved ones or their caregiver. Worrying about incontinence could make them reluctant to drink. If they don’t want to talk about the issue with you, make protective products available to them discreetly.
Once you recognize the signs and symptoms of dehydration in elderly loved ones, don’t attempt to treat their condition yourself. You should only use them as an indicator of a potential condition. Take them to a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis.
If they are dehydrated, you need to know how mild or severe it is. You might treat mild dehydration by giving the person liquids containing electrolytes. Moderate dehydration often requires fluids through an IV in the belly or thigh. This is a safer, more comfortable treatment than inserting a traditional IV.
Severe dehydration might require additional treatment for the kidneys. Some cases lead to the need for dialysis over a short period of time.
Increasing awareness, making liquids and healthy food available, and knowing what symptoms of dehydration in elderly people look like can help protect your loved one. For many seniors, staying healthy depends on their lifestyle and the level of care they have.
At Park Terrace, seniors have access to the level of care they need. Our residents always have access to healthy meals. There are activities in a safe and luxurious environment that facilitates optimal physical, mental, and social well-being.
Contact Park Terrace at Greenway to schedule a tour and learn more about the benefits of luxury retirement living.