Because more than sixty percent of the human body is made up of water, staying hydrated is important to keep our bodies functioning properly. As adults, we lose more than eighty ounces of water daily just through normal activity. Elderly adults are among the most at risk groups for dehydration, one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization after age 65. Because of the potentially serious consequences of this condition to seniors, as a caregiver it’s important to recognize the causes and symptoms of dehydration as well as how you can help your loved one stay properly hydrated.
As a natural part of the aging process, our bodies undergo physiological changes that increase our risk of becoming dehydrated. With advancing years, seniors can lose their sense of thirst and tend not to drink enough. Age slows down our metabolic rate and we need fewer calories. We are not generally as physically active as we once were, either. Our appetites decrease, we eat less food and as a result get less fluids from solid food sources, too, problematic for the elderly since almost everyone gets about half their daily water requirement from solid foods and fruit and vegetable juices.
In addition, our fluid balance can be affected by medication, emotional stress, exercise, general health, and the weather. Many seniors have chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and may take medications that can make them more susceptible to dehydration. Our aging bodies also lose some natural ability to regulate temperature making seniors more susceptible to temperature changes in the environment. One such change is that the subcutaneous layer of fat beneath the skin, which acts as a natural insulation to heat and cold, dwindles. Also because seniors perspire less, it’s harder for them to keep cool which also increases their risk of becoming overheated. The two most serious conditions for seniors that result from heat and exposure to high temperatures are heat exhaustion and heat stroke, both which primarily result from dehydration.
Dehydration is caused by loss of salts and water in our bodies due to severe sweating, extreme heat, vomiting, diarrhea and certain medications. Severe dehydration can become life threatening to the elderly because there is no longer enough fluid in the body to carry blood to the organs. Signs and symptoms of dehydration, like those of many other treatable health conditions, can be virtually identical to senile dementia symptoms, and Alzheimer’s symptoms. The most common signs and symptoms of dehydration include persistent fatigue, lethargy, muscle weakness or cramps, headaches, dizziness, nausea, forgetfulness, confusion, deep rapid breathing, or an increased heart rate.
Other less common signs and symptoms of dehydration can include:
- Excessive loss of fluid through vomiting, urinating, stools or sweating
- Poor intake of fluids, “can’t keep anything down”
- Sunken eyes
- Dry or sticky mucous membranes in the mouth
- Skin that lacks its normal elasticity and sags back into position slowly when pinched up into a fold
- Decreased or absent urine output
- Decreased tears
If your senior loved one has any of these symptoms, and they are persistent for 2 to 3 days, call a doctor immediately — or go to a hospital emergency room. If left untreated, dehydration can quickly cause severe problems, even death.
The most important way to prevent dehydration in elderly adults is to make sure they are drinking enough liquid. Seniors and all adults should drink at least 64 ounces of fluids such as water or non-caffeinated beverages daily. Caffeinated beverages cause frequent urination and promote dehydration. Water can also be found in many fruits and vegetables, so including them as part of a nutritionally sound daily diet will help with staying hydrated as well. Include fruits like melons, berries, apples, oranges and peaches. Vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, celery and cauliflower are also good. Keep water readily available, especially if you are caring for a senior citizen with mobility problems. If the taste of water is bothersome, try using powdered drink mixes that flavor the water, but do not add any excess sugar.
Correcting dehydration can allow an older person to return to a full and normal life. But regarding hydration and your senior loved one, as the old adage goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’
- ‘Eating Well as You Get Older’, published by National Institute on Aging on NIH Senior Health, (http://nihseniorhealth.gov)
- ‘Extreme Heat Causes Exhaustion and Heatstroke,’ by Christine Bude Nyholm, Yahoo! Contributor Network; (www.Yahoo!.com)
- ‘Water: How much should you drink every day?,’ byMayo Clinic Staff, http://www.mayoclinic.com Dehydration, by Mayo Clinic Staff, http://www.mayoclinic.com