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For many, the long-awaited summer months bring to mind family picnics, cool drinks on the porch, and lazy afternoons at the beach. But, as temperatures soar, warm weather activities can increase the risk for another staple of summer: dehydration. Not getting enough fluids, especially when it’s hot outside, can pose serious health problems for anyone, but older adults are at particular risk for dehydration.

The Connection Between Aging and Dehydration

There are a few reasons why older adults are more susceptible to fluid and electrolyte imbalances. Muscle mass (an important storehouse for water in the body) and kidney function tend to decline with age, thereby diminishing the ability to conserve water. This can make it more difficult to adapt to things like fluctuating temperatures. Additionally, the sense of thirst diminishes with age. By the time a senior actually feels thirsty, essential fluids could already be extremely low.
Certain medical conditions and medications can affect the ability to retain fluids as well. Dementia patients may forget to eat and drink and may experience difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) that prevents them from getting the fluids they need. Drugs like diuretics, antihistamines, laxatives, antipsychotics, and corticosteroids can cause frequent urination that depletes water and electrolytes. Furthermore, seniors who experience incontinence often purposely refuse or limit fluids in order to avoid accidents.

Symptoms of Dehydration in Elderly Individuals

As a family caregiver, it’s important to watch for signs of dehydration and communicate with a doctor or health professional if you notice red flags that could indicate complications from low fluid intake or fluid loss.
Picking up on the subtle, early signs that a senior needs to increase their fluid intake is crucial. Keep in mind that thirst is not usually a helpful indicator, because a person who feels thirsty may already be dehydrated. Initial signs to look for include headache, constipation, muscle cramps, dry mouth and tongue, and sleepiness or lethargy. Urine color is another helpful indicator and should be clear or light yellow for someone who is properly hydrated.
If severe dehydration goes unchecked, it can cause seizures due to electrolyte imbalance, a reduction in the volume of blood in the body (hypovolemic shock), kidney failure, heat injuries, and even coma or death.

Signs of Severe Dehydration

  • Little or no urination
  • Dark or amber-colored urine
  • Dry skin that stays folded when pinched
  • Irritability, dizziness, or confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Weak pulse
  • Cold hands and feet

Recommended Fluid Intake for Elderly Individuals

Most of us drink plenty of fluids and eat foods with high water content to stay hydrated in warm weather. The general recommendation for adults is about 64 ounces of fluid every day, but that amount increases with heat and humidity and can change based on various medications and health conditions.
A good rule of thumb is to try balancing fluid intake with output. If a senior is sweating or urinating more frequently, then their fluid intake should become more frequent as well. A loved one who is suffering from an illness that causes fever, diarrhea, or vomiting should have their fluid intake carefully monitored. Keep in mind that you can still become dehydrated in cold weather, too!