During a prolonged period of hot weather, it is very easy for us to become dehydrated. Fortunately, we will usually start to feel thirsty, realise what is happening and top up our fluids.

For our older loved ones, it can be more of a risk. They are at a higher risk of dehydration than younger people, due to physiological changes that occur as part of the ageing process. Many conditions causing increased physical or mental frailty may also complicate the issue. Carers need to be aware of the common risk factors, the consequences, how to recognise the signs of dehydration, and how they can be prevented.

Common Risk Factors

  1. Elderly people, especially those living with dementia or who have had a stroke often do not have the same sensation of thirst as they used to, and may not realise they are thirsty.
  2. Impaired kidney function can also be a risk factor, as the bodies hormones do not respond to dehydration as well as they used to.
  3. Some medications such as laxatives and diuretics can exacerbate the likelihood of an elderly person becoming dehydrated. If they are incontinent, they may deliberately restrict their intake of fluids, because they are worried about “accidents”.
  4. People who need assistance with feeding can be at higher risk, particularly if the people caring for them are not fully aware of how important hydration is.

Consequences of Dehydration

If an older person becomes dehydrated, they are more likely to be hospitalised and have an increased mortality risk. Even if they are only mildly dehydrated, they will feel tired and will have poorer concentration, memory problems and slower reaction times.

Other complications of dehydration include weakness, dizziness, low blood pressure and an increased risk of falls. If your loved one has an inadequate fluid intake, they will also be at greater risk of developing a urinary tract infection and may also become constipated.


Recognising Dehydration

Common signs of dehydration include a dry mouth, tongue and lips. You may also notice that the elderly person has sunken eyes and dry, papery skin. They may seem to be unusually drowsy, confused or disorientated too. They might also feel dizzy because their blood pressure is low.

An elderly person who is dehydrated will often have concentrated urine which can appear dark and have a strong odour, while normal urine should be pale in colour and be odourless.

A dehydrated person may experience cramping in the limbs, headaches or feel generally unwell. They can become irritable and have difficulty sleeping.

Symptoms of more severe dehydration include a weak, rapid pulse, faster than usual breathing, severe muscle cramps and contractions and a bloated stomach.


How Can Dehydration be Prevented?

The most important strategy for preventing dehydration is to recognise when the person’s fluid intake is inadequate and ensuring that they drink more.

It can be difficult to persuade a loved one to drink the amount of fluid they need, especially when they do not feel thirsty or worry about incontinence.

Try the Following Strategies

  1. It doesn’t just have to be water. Mix up the fluids and hot and cold drinks – water is always the best way to hydrate, but it’s not the only way. Cups of decaff. tea or coffee, glasses of squash, smoothies and even a bowl of soup can help keep hydrated.
  2. Understand medication – certain prescriptions may make it more likely for them to become dehydrated, especially in hot weather.
  3. Provide lots of different vegetables particularly salads – many have high water content and provide the nutritional value you need to stay healthy in the heat.
  4. Try to persuade “sun worshipers” to wear a hat and stay in the shade. Be alert to complaints of headaches, fatigue, nausea, and lightheadedness.
  5. Assist if they need it if they are unable to drink independently. Your loved one may find drinking easier with an aid such as a special cup, or a straw depending on their condition.
  6. When they take their medication, offer a full glass of water to help them swallow it.
  7. Approach them positively offering a drink as an attractive option rather than as a necessity.
  8. Offer drinks regularly and leave them accessible so that your loved one can take them little and often if they prefer.
  9. Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol.
  10. Promote fluid intake more in the day than late at night if they have concerns about using the bathroom at night.


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