When we think of the chronic health conditions that plague the elderly, these are the illnesses that immediately come to mind. Another hidden hazard that poses a serious problem for older people from all walks of life — whether at home, in the hospital, in assisted living, in memory care, in independent living or in continuing care retirement communities — is dehydration, a condition that can be downright deadly.
Dehydration is the result of depleting more fluids than what is taken in. Kelly O’Connor, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, tells Aging Well magazine that as a person’s age increases, the body’s water content decreases. She explains: “Research indicates the total body water content of a 75- to 80-year-old person is nearly 50% less than a young person. For some reason not yet clear, the decline in water content is even greater in elderly women.”
As people age, they often compensate for other age-related conditions such as incontinence by cutting back on the amount they drink. O’Connor points out, “Many older adults deliberately restrict their fluid or beverage intake if they are suffering from incontinence or are embarrassed about having to use the restroom many times a day. They also may be confused and/or suffer from dementia and not be able to remember if they’ve consumed any beverages in a given day.”
This puts them at greater risk for dehydration, which is why the staff of independent living, assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities are trained to recognize the symptoms of dehydration and treat them accordingly.
There are a number of factors that contribute to dehydration in the elderly. For starters, medication can play a role. People who take diuretics for blood pressure issues or congestive heart failure are at a higher risk of dehydration. Often, people don’t realize that the fluids these drugs deplete must be replaced. Besides diuretics, there are also drugs that cause excessive sweating, robbing the body of fluids. They include pain medications, antibiotics and antivirals, heart and blood pressure medications, oncology medications, skin and topical medications, gastrointestinal medications, and more.
Another cause of dehydration is decreased thirst among the elderly. With an absence of thirst, older people are less inclined to replenish their fluid intake throughout the day. And because some individuals have more limited mobility, they often must rely on caretakers to get their drinks.
Decreased kidney function associated with aging, an increase in body temperature, vomiting or diarrhea also can lead to dehydration.
Dawn Bare, director of marketing for Premier Senior Living LLC (Premier Senior Living), a provider of assisted living and memory care communities in New York, Ohio and Florida, explains that it is imperative for loved ones, health care providers and others to be aware of the causes of dehydration, as well as the risks the condition presents. The summer months pose a problem in and of themselves.
Bare points out: “Regardless of climate, it is important that our residents stay hydrated to avoid the dangers that accompany this deadly condition. As the temperatures outside creep up, the elderly face an added risk. The Florida heat can be downright deadly, especially for residents in our Summit at New Port Richey and Summit at Venice communities. That is why we educate members of our community, as well as our staff, about the risks and symptoms of dehydration. We also take preventive measures to ensure that our residents remain healthy.”
With so many risk factors associated with dehydration among the elderly, it’s important to recognize the warning signs. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of dehydration include dark urine, dry mouth, sleepiness, decreased urine output, dry skin, headaches, constipation, dizziness, confusion and low blood pressure.
If left untreated, dehydration can result in brain swelling, seizures, kidney failure, coma and even death. Thankfully, there are plenty of preventive measures for people in independent living, assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities. As Bare pointed out, making people aware of the dangers and being proactive are good starting points. Here are some parameters for preventing dehydration:
- Make a memorable schedule. Whether it is setting reminders on a smartphone or having a person get a drink every time he or she uses the bathroom, establish set times for drinking throughout the day.
- Consult a physician and set parameters for how much fluid needs to be consumed on a daily basis. Take into account medications, as well as any illnesses, that increase the risk of dehydration.
- Encourage drinking between meals and before bed. Also, offer beverages throughout the day.
- Make beverages accessible. For residents of independent living, assisted living, memory care and continued care retirement communities, keep drinks where they can be reached without assistance.
- Identify healthy, non-diuretic beverages that are appealing, such as water with mint, lemon or fresh fruit. Make beverage offerings enticing.
- Stock up on easy-to-hold beverage containers.
- Consult caretakers on a regular basis to ensure that a loved one is getting the proper fluid intake.
If you want to learn more about helping the elderly in your life stay well, or if you have any questions about assisted living facilities, please contact us at 1-800-380-8909 for more information or to schedule a tour.