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Summer weather is on the way here in Rhode Island and everywhere across the country. As usual, the heat and humidity that is a hallmark of summers in the Northeast pose a unique challenge for older adults. But the summer months don’t need to be such a dangerous time for seniors if they take some sensible measures to keep themselves safe.

Why are Seniors at Risk?

Older adults have a range of risk factors that can increase the danger of heat-related problems and sickness, known as hyperthermia. Heart problems, ineffective sweat glands, and weight issues are just a few of the common reasons that seniors may need to take special care on hot days.

Many older adults are on fixed incomes and live in older buildings without adequate ventilation and cooling systems. Without access to fans or portable air conditioners, their living conditions put them at increased risk for hyperthermia during heat waves.

Older adults are also more likely than others to be taking medications that impact their ability to stay cool. Drugs like diuretics, sedatives, and high blood pressure medications can all impair the body’s ability to cool itself, as does drinking alcoholic beverages.

What Makes Hot Weather So Dangerous for Elders?

Summer sun is a great way to get a tan and soak in some Vitamin D while you’re at it. Taking a brisk walk or gardening are good for your health, but be cautious. Too much sun can be dangerous for people at any age, including older adults.

The primary cause of heat-related illness in older adults is dehydration, which is caused by a lack of moisture in the body. As a person’s sweat glands start cooling their skin, that water is moved from other areas of the body. Without properly replacing that water, organs need to work harder and harder to operate, eventually causing severe or fatal illness.

Hyperthermia can take a number of forms in older adults, including heat cramps and heat exhaustion, which can involve feeling thirsty, dizzy, weak, and nauseated. Heat exhaustion can also come upon people much faster than expected, causing disorientation or confusion. If left unchecked, it can quickly progress into heat stroke.

Heat stroke represents the most immediate and dangerous form of hyperthermia, killing more than 1,000 Americans every year, according to the EPA. The body begins to shut down, and within an hour a person can become unconscious.

What Can Seniors Do to Avoid the Heat?

Elders are clearly at risk of adverse effects of heat in the summer months. Fortunately, there are common-sense measures that everyone can take to minimize their risk.

In living conditions without air conditioning or adequate ventilation, elders can take steps to keep their home cool. Shades are a good way to minimize the impact of the sun heating the home during the day, and opening windows at night will allow for cool air to circulate as well.  Taking a cool bath can help reduce your body temperature on moderately warm days too.

When you leave the home, make sure to bring water. Keeping cool is also a matter of staying hydrated and drinking lots of water can help.  Wearing loose-fitting clothing and staying out of the sun during peak hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. can also help. 

There are always a few days out of each year when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, however, and you just can’t seem to get comfortable.  That’s when fans and portable air conditioners can help.  PACE participants can ask their social worker for assistance to purchase and install these systems.  

If you’re feeling isolated, visit an air-conditioned library or coffee shop for company and to rehydrate.    On extreme heat days, many communities also offer access to centrally located community spaces called “cooling centers.”

How Can Others Help Someone with Heat Illness?

The signs of heat exhaustion are not always obvious, but if you see someone who is showing signs of dizziness, thirst, or weakness, get them out of the sun and help them rest in the shade. Assuming they can drink safely, get that person water as soon as possible, and place a cool, moist cloth on their forehead. If you see that they are disoriented, confused, or have dry flushed skin, they may have heat stroke, and you should call 9-1-1 immediately. Stay with them until help arrives.

We can all do our part to help elders stay cool and safe this summer.  Take some time now, before the dog days of summer, to sit down with the elders in your life.  Create a plan for how to manage risks for heat-related illness and be sure to check in on your older friends and family members as the temperatures start to rise.