Summer Issues: Dehydration is a Concern for Older Adults

According to John Muir Health, “Dehydration occurs when your body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to function normally.” While dehydration is a common problem for people of all ages, it’s a particular concern for seniors.

Why older adults should be concerned about dehydration

Older adults have a decreased sense of thirst, and their kidneys don’t conserve body water as well compared to younger people with healthy kidney function. Beginning around age 50, older adults may begin to feel tired and sluggish rather than experience the familiar sensation of being thirsty. As such, they may opt for a nap rather than a tall glass of ice water. Coupled with medications that can dry out the body, the natural progression of aging and its effects on the body make older adults especially prone to dehydration.

Mayo Clinic offers an informative explanation of why older adults are particularly susceptible to dehydration, especially in the hot summer months: “Your body’s ability to conserve water is reduced, your thirst sense becomes less acute, and you’re less able to respond to changes in temperature. What’s more, older adults, especially people in nursing homes or living alone, tend to eat less than younger people do and sometimes may forget to eat or drink altogether. Disability or neglect also may prevent them from being well nourished. These problems are compounded by chronic illnesses such as diabetes, dementia, and by the use of certain medications.”

In the warm summer months, when the body is losing even more fluids through perspiration, seniors should pay close attention to how much water they’re consuming and be sure to drink the recommend amount of water daily.

Symptoms of dehydration

There are several symptoms to watch for that may indicate dehydration, including:

  • a dry sensation in the mouth or on the tongue with thick saliva
  • inability to urinate or urinating only small volumes of urine
  • dark or deep-yellow urine
  • headaches
  • few or no tears when crying
  • cramps in the arms or legs
  • general feelings of weakness or being unwell
  • fatigue or irritability, confusion, sluggishness or fainting

The symptoms above are indicators of mild dehydration, which can often be remedied by drinking plenty of fluids and ruling out underlying causes. But in some cases, the symptoms go unnoticed or don’t become obvious until the person is in a state of severe dehydration. In these cases, the symptoms are much more alarming, such as:

  • low blood pressure
  • convulsions
  • extreme thirst
  • irritability and confusion
  • very dry mouth, skin and mucous membranes
  • sunken eyes
  • little to no urination and urine output is dark in color
  • rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • fever
  • deliriousness or unconsciousness in the most extreme cases

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms above, seek immediate medical attention.

How to prevent dehydration in the elderly

When it comes to dehydration, prevention is the best medicine. As a caregiver or family member of an elderly loved one, you can play an active role in ensuring your loved one is getting enough fluids and taking other steps to prevent dehydration. outlines several valuable tips for helping your loved ones consume enough fluids and prevent dehydration:

  • Encourage aging loved ones to drink small amounts of fluids throughout the day. This is often easier than drinking large quantities at once.
  • Aim for 40 ounces of fluid daily, or five eight-ounce glasses of water or other fluid. Water is preferable to sugary beverages and soda.
  • Avoid coffee and alcohol, which can have a diuretic effect and actually contribute to dehydration.
  • Encourage your loved one to drink fluid with every meal.
  • If drinking is problematic, consider foods that have a high water content to help your loved one reach their daily water intake goal. Foods such as watermelon, cucumber and other fresh fruits and vegetables can help your elderly loved one meet her daily water needs.
  • Keep favorite beverages within reach and easily accessible throughout the day.
  • Sometimes older adults avoid drinking liquids due to a fear of incontinence. If this is the case, encourage her to drink more fluids earlier in the day and cut back on fluid intake in the evenings before bedtime.

Remember, the 40 ounces per day guideline is only a guideline; your loved one’s individual needs may vary, particularly if she has a condition such as diabetes. And in the hot, humid summer months, it’s a good idea to consume even more water to compensate for the additional body fluids lost through perspiration.

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