Older adults in general, particularly those over the age of 65, do not adjust as well as younger people to sudden changes in temperature and are more susceptible to heat stress.
Additionally, many older people have chronic medical conditions that can change normal body responses to heat, or are taking medications that can possibly weaken the immune system or impair the body's ability to regulate its temperature. They also may be taking medications that inhibit perspiration. In the hot summer months, caregivers should be more aware of the dangers of heat-related illnesses, heat stroke and dehydration in affected individuals.
Those with Alzheimer's disease or dementia may feel comfortable outdoors. However, they do not realize or cannot understand how the heat is really affecting them. They perhaps cannot "feel" the heat and often dress in layers of clothing. Plus, because of deficits in communication, they may not be able to express their discomfort to others.
If an affected individual lives alone, he or she may forget to drink enough water, shut windows, forget to turn on the air-conditioner or mistakenly turn on the heating system, which makes them more vulnerable to heat stress.
Heat stroke is a most serious heat-related illness and occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. The body's temperature rises quickly and loses its ability to perspire and thus, is unable to cool down. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability without immediate treatment.
Some symptoms of heat stroke are a high body temperature; red, hot, dry skin; and a strong, rapid pulse. Nausea, dizziness and extreme confusion also may occur.
In case of a heat stroke or heat-related illness, the individual should be moved to a cool, shady area, and a cool wet cloth should be applied to the head, groin or armpits (areas that cool quickly). The individual's feet should be elevated. Body temperature can also be lowered by being immersed in a tub of cool water or in a cool shower, or by sponging off with cool water. The person's body temperature should be continually monitored, and most importantly, medical assistance should be attained as quickly as possible.
To avoid heat-related illnesses, fluids should be consumed often, after consulting a physician; some individuals could be on a fluid restricted diet. Caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea or alcohol, should be avoided.
Do not go outside during the hottest part of the day, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. While running errands, caregivers should try to park close to entrances to avoid their loved ones having to take long walks or standing in the heat. If the affected person insists on going outdoors in the heat, he or she should be encouraged to find a cool, shady place to sit and relax, and should be dressed in lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothes.
Questions about Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer's Services of the Capital Area at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.