The mercury is rising, triple digits are a fact of life and snowbirds and tourists are nowhere in sight. Here in the Valley of the Sun, we desert dwellers hunker down and take refuge in our favorite venues enjoying the elbow room that didn’t exist a few months ago, especially during the week of the “Open” and the Super Bowl. As we tough out another summer and are optimistic that cooler days will circle back, let’s take action to ensure the safety of our aging adult population.
Older adults (that is, people aged 65 years and older) are more prone to heat stress than younger people for several reasons. Older adults do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. They are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat. Lastly, they are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or that inhibit perspiration.
Whimsically, we repeat the adage, “But it’s a dry heat.” Well, have you stepped outside into the “pea soup” lately? Meteorological explanations aside, this monsoonal moisture can add injury to triple-digit insult.
High humidity feels so oppressive because it affects the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat. Regardless of heat index, you can’t sweat if not properly hydrated. The urge to drink fluids can diminish with age. Many medications, such as tranquilizers, can blunt an individual’s awareness of discomfort, as can alcohol.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the body loses its ability to sweat, and it is unable to cool down. Body temperatures rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
Recognizing and remembering the symptoms of heat stroke is of paramount importance. In an effort to empower you with knowledge, I began searching for a mnemonic device, such as an acronym or saying to aid in the recall of symptoms. My fruitless search has led to a creative reach, so here goes:
I often consider our dog days of summer the equivalent of hibernation. We try to stay in climate-controlled situations like home, car or swimming pool. Hence my acronym:
Increased heart rate and respiration
Behavior: confusion and dizziness
Red and dry skin
Nausea: cramping and/or vomiting
Absence of sweat
Temperature over 104°F
Although there are no symptoms to represent the letter E, it is vital to exit the heat and realize if you have these symptoms, it is an emergency and call 911 for help. If you are caring for someone you suspect is undergoing heat stress, do the following:
• Get the person indoors or to a shady area.
• Cool the person rapidly, using whatever methods you can. For example, immerse the person in a tub of cool water; place the person in a cool shower; spray the person with cool water from a garden hose; sponge the person with cool water; or if the humidity is low, wrap the person in a cool, wet sheet and fan him or her vigorously.
• Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101°-102°F
• If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instructions.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure so here is how to protect your aging loved ones and neighbors:
• Visit older adults at risk at least twice a day and watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
• Encourage them to increase their fluid intake by drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages, regardless of their activity level.
• Warning: If their doctor generally limits the amount of fluid they drink or they are on water pills, they will need to ask their doctor how much they should drink while the weather is hot.
• Take them to air-conditioned locations if they have transportation problems.
While I do advocate hibernation as a method to handle the summer heat, we need to recognize that many aging adults routinely live socially isolated lives and need our watchful eye. And to my East Coast friends and family who constantly ask how I deal with the Arizona summers, I simply remind them that during the winter we are shoveling sunshine.
Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions, LLC. Visit cypresshomecare.com.