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We’re Having a Heat Wave!

We're having a heat wave!

Many parts of the U.S. have been hit by record high temperatures recently.  At times like these, everyone needs to watch out for serious health problems due to exposure to the sun and the heat.  But persons with dementia are even more in danger of heat-related problems.  These aren’t directly due to their dementia, but their cognitive losses do put them at risk indirectly, because of forgetfulness, lack of preparation, or an inability to recognize problems when they do occur.

Here are some tips for helping our loved ones with dementia survive this heat wave:

1.  Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids.  Some people with dementia lose the ability to recognize that they are thirsty.  Or they may start out to get a drink of water, but by the time they get to the kitchen may have forgotten why they are there.  Or, if mobility is an issue, they may not be able to go to where the water is, unless it is right beside them.

2.  Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and high sugar drinks, as these can increase thirst rather than relieve it.

3.  Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day.  If your loved one is accustomed to taking walks in the garden for exercise, or to relieve stress, encourage them to do so in the early morning hours.  Rest in shady areas.

4.  Be sure to use a fan, or air conditioning, to keep the room as cool as possible.  If the person spends a lot of time in bed, remember that the elderly body is not as efficient at controlling internal temperature.

5.  Keep bedding light and clean.  Keep the area under the bed open, to allow for circulation around and through the bed coverings.

6.  If the person is bed-bound, remember that these people often do not move around enough to generate a lot of body heat.  Feel the person’s arms, legs, and feet to be sure that the person is warm enough.  It’s actually not uncommon for some of these folks to get a chill in an air-conditioned room.

7.  Encourage the person to wear light-weight clothing, again feeling his skin for temperature and comfort.

8.  If the person does go outside, regardless of the time of day, be sure she wears sunscreen and a hat.

9.  Try to keep to your usual routine as much as possible, as persons with dementia depend heavily on a structured environment.  But see where you can make small changes in that routine that won’t upset your loved one overly much.  You may need to schedule more quiet time or a nap in a cool place to deal with the heat.

10.  If the person with dementia does not live with you, be sure to check on them more frequently.  Encourage them to make modifications to their home to allow them to be safer and more comfortable.

11.  Consider a cool bath, or sponge bath, to help cool the person off.

12.  If you don’t have air conditioning, suggest a trip to the library or the local shopping mall.  Such an outing may actually help a person’s need to wander, or he may enjoy sitting with a cool drink as you watch the people go by.

12.  Remember that, as we age, our bodies become less tolerant of changes in environmental temperature.  The skin is thinner, blood circulation is impaired, and sweat glands are not as efficient as they once were.  These things can actually cause a person to become too cold in less than moderate temperatures.  Some medications can also cause the person to sweat less, or be more sensitive to the sun and to heat.

13.  Persons on a low-salt diet may actually be at increased risk.  Consult with the person’s doctor to see if a salt tablet may be in order.

14.  The person can be at increased risk for heat-related problems if she is significantly over- or under-weight.

15.  Check to see if there are any community agencies that can help the person get air conditioning, or a fan, or other help at this time.

If you do suspect that the person is having a heat-related emergency, do the following:

1.  Get the person out of the heat, and into a cool (preferably air-conditioned place).  Have him lie down, if possible.

2.  If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.  Get the person to the hospital as soon as possible.  (Look for symptoms such as a body temperature higher than 104 degrees, changes in mental status, strong rapid pulse, lack of sweating, dry flushed skin, fainting, or even coma.)

3.  Use a shower, or bath, or sponge bath, with cool water.

4.  Put a cool, wet cloth to the armpits, the wrists, and the groin, as the blood flows closer to the skin at these points.

5.  Offer cool fluids such as water or fruit juices.  (Being careful to stay away from alcohol and caffeine.)

Basically, think what you would do at this time.  Don’t take for granted that the person who is cognitively-impaired will remember to do what’s needed, or have the ability to recognize that a problem exists, or to reason what to do about it.  At the same time, try to keep from making the person feel inferior about their challenges, or upset them by overly disrupting their routine or taking all control of their lives away from them.




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