What seniors should do to prevent heat-related illness

Posted July 03, 2014, at 10:46 a.m.

It is early in the season but already we have had some pretty hot days. On one of these stifling days, while I was shopping, I noticed an elderly woman in a heavy sweater. It raised red flags for me.

Older people may not feel the heat accurately and consequently put themselves at risk by wearing too much or inappropriate clothing. Lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting garments made of natural fibers are best. If you are a caregiver, keep an eye on your elder’s choice of clothing.

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 exhaustion occurs when the body gets too hot and symptoms include thirst, confusion, weakness, nausea and lack of coordination. If you experience any of these symptoms, take them seriously and immediately shower or bathe, if you are feeling steady enough to do so. If not, sponge off with cool water, drink cool water and 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 very short while, call 911.

According to the National Institute on Aging, heatstroke happens when the body is overwhelmed by heat and can’t control its temperature. Heatstroke is potentially fatal, so immediate medical attention is critical.

If you are with a senior who has elevated body temperature, is exhibiting confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior, has a headache, feels faint or is staggering, call 911 immediately. Other symptoms to look for include strong, rapid pulse, dry flushed skin, lack of sweating, and vomiting.

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 over time. An air conditioner can be a lifesaver.

Remember, as we age, our body’s ability to release heat by sweating is blunted, making it particularly dangerous to stay in very warm environments for long periods of time. The best way to stay safe in the heat is to take it seriously and pay attention to warning signs. If there is a question about heat-related illness, when in doubt, call 911.

Carol Higgins Taylor is a senior advocate and owner of a public relations firm in Bangor. She can be reached at 4chtaylor@gmail.com.

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