Aged Care and Summer Heat – What’s the Connection?
Australia’s Aging Population
With an Australian summer in full swing, many people, particularly the elderly, are feeling the effects of high temperatures and a scorching sun. Older people are more vulnerable to the heat for a number of reasons. Their bodies do not adjust as well to sudden changes in temperature as young people and they are more likely to have medical conditions that change the way their body reacts to heat. They are also more likely to take medication that impairs their ability regulate body temperature or inhibits perspiration.
Aged Care Facilities: How To Prepare Aged Care Patients For Heat
For those working in aged care or otherwise caring for the elderly, taking some simple precautions can make a tremendous difference in minimising heat stress. Carers should try to ensure patients are:
- Staying indoors
- Drinking plenty of fluids, particularly water
- Keeping cool as much as possible – utilising fans and air conditioning where available
- Using the fridge to cool water
- Wearing light, non restrictive clothing
Staying well hydrated is particularly important when high temperatures strip moisture from the body through sweat and evaporation. Not getting enough fluids in hot weather increases the risk of becoming dehydrated, which can affect bodily functions and blood volume, as well as blood pressure.
Usually, there are no early signs or symptoms of dehydration, though people may experience dryness of the mouth and/or thirst. Early or mild dehydration may also include (but are not limited to) headaches, dry skin, decreased volume of urine passed, dizziness, tiredness and cramping in arms and legs.
Consuming water is the best way to stay hydrated, and cooling water in the fridge first can help people to stay cool in hot weather. Other fluids suitable to help hydration can include things like ice blocks, jelly and electrolytic sports drinks. Avoid alcohol, caffeine (including coffee and soft drinks) as well as tea, as these can lead to dehydration.
Be Sun Safe
Staying indoors, out of the sun, is an essential part of minimising heat stress on hot days. Skin becomes more sensitive to burning as people age, with people over the age of 60 becoming increasingly vulnerable. Sunburn can have other serious complications, such as bacterial infections, and the elderly have a greater risk of complications from sunburn.
Spending time in the sun can cause people to perspire more and increase the likelihood of becoming dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion or even heat stroke, a condition where the body’s temperature is elevated dramatically.
Beyond staying out of the sun and keeping well hydrated, there are a number of other ways to help keep cool and safe in extreme hot weather. Air conditioning and fans are good tools to help keep temperatures under control. If the elderly person doesn’t have access to either at home, it may be possible, where appropriate, to take advantage of air conditioned public spaces such as libraries or shopping centres.
Depending on how residences are designed and insulated, it may be advisable to close up a house or other residential accommodation to keep the heat out; or open it up as much as possible to improve ventilation. Water cooled in the refrigerator can not only be drunk but also used to wet towels and cloths, which can then be applied directly to the skin. This is particularly effective when applied to the head and/or neck to moisten skin and assist with body temperature regulation.
Wearing light, loose clothing is important to allow the wearer to move and breathe without restriction in the heat, as well as allow sweat to evaporate and body heat to dissipate. Elderly people may dress too heavily for hot weather and so carers should encourage their patients to dress down according to the conditions.
Be Heat Stroke Aware
Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia, defined as a body temperature of 40C (104F), and is a true medical emergency that must treated quickly and properly. Heat stroke can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack and may be preceded by symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Look out for these signs and symptoms:
- Muscle cramps
- Aches, and
Patients may also show signs such as:
- Rapid pulse
- High body temperature
- Difficulty breathing
- Absence of sweating, with hot, flushed dry skin
- Strange behaviour
If you think someone has heat stroke, seek medical help immediately from your doctor or nearest hospital.
Take some time to consult with those you care for and find out what, if any, medications they are on and how it might affect their ability to cope with extreme hot weather. Work on strategies to keep people well hydrated – put out cold water regularly for people to use or schedule drinks for every hour. With basic precautions, the people you care for will be as safe as possible this summer, despite the heat.
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