Every summer, heat waves plague the Northeast. While usually brief, these weather patterns can be dangerous for seniors. Once heat creeps into the house and settles in, it can prove difficult to get it back out, especially the humid air that Maine is so famous for. It can wrap around you like a blanket.
For most of us, high temperatures are simply uncomfortable and cause occasional sleepless nights. But seniors have added concerns, as they can be at higher risk for heat-related health problems. This is particularly true for those who have heart, lung or kidney disease.
Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke are not to be taken lightly.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include thirst, confusion, weakness, dizziness and nausea.
If you experience any of these symptoms, take them seriously. Immediately shower or bathe, if you are feeling steady enough to do so. If not, sponge off with cool water, drink cool water or juice and lie down to rest, preferably in a cool place. If you are outside in the sun, find shelter immediately. If you are not better in a short while, call 911.
Heat stroke happens when the body is overwhelmed by heat and can’t control its temperature. Heat stroke is potentially fatal so immediate medical attention is critical.
If you are with a senior who is experiencing an elevated body temperature, is exhibiting confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior, is headachy, feeling faint or is staggering, call 911 immediately. Other symptoms to look for include: strong rapid pulse, dry, flushed skin, lack of sweating and vomiting.
As Mainers, we are serious about staying warm in the winter. While hypothermia due to cold weather is certainly a concern for seniors, heat-related illness is just as dangerous.
Air conditioners can be as useful in summer as a wood stove is in the winter. It is all about keeping your body temperature in normal range. Even though summer is so much shorter than Maine’s long, cold winter, the heat coupled with high humidity can quickly equal disaster for a senior. Remember, as we age, our bodies’ ability to release heat by sweating is blunted, making it particularly dangerous to stay in very warm environments for long periods of time.
The key is to reduce or even prevent the risks that extreme heat can cause. Talk to your primary care provider about your individual risk factors. To beat the heat, give serious thought to an air conditioner. A small one runs about $100 to $150, is easy to install and makes a huge difference. If an air conditioner is not possible, a window or table fan can create a cooling and refreshing breeze.
At night, open windows on opposite sides of the building to create cross-ventilation. During the day, close windows, blinds and curtains and drink plenty of water. Sit in front of a fan and lightly mist your legs and arms, which will cool your skin as the water evaporates. You can also apply a cold, wet washcloth to wrists and neck.
Older people may not feel the heat accurately and consequently put themselves at risk by wearing too much clothing. Lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting garments made of natural fibers such as cotton or linen are best.
The best way to stay safe in the heat is to take it seriously and pay attention to warning signs.
Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.