When it comes to weather, Minnesota is the opposite of Arizona. In the depths of winter, Minnesota residents hunker down in their homes and wait for the spring thaw to comfortably enjoy the great outdoors. Of course, here in Arizona, we hunker down in the summer months when temperatures can get as high as 120 degrees and wait for the coolness of fall and winter. One thing both places have in common, though, is that extreme temperatures can take a toll on older adults.
Focusing on Arizona summers, 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 to sudden changes in temperature; they are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat; and they are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or inhibit perspiration.
Mostly, we deal with a dry heat, but when monsoon season rolls around, the resulting humidity can add injury to triple-digit misery. High humidity 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 quickly. Regardless of heat index, you can’t sweat if you’re not properly hydrated. The urge to drink fluids can diminish with age, and 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. Body temperatures can rise to 106 degrees or higher. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided within 10 to 15 minutes.
Recognizing and remembering the symptoms of heat stroke is of paramount importance. I often consider our dog days of summer in Arizona as our time to hibernate, and that’s the word I use to help people remember the signs and symptoms of heatstroke.
H - Headache
I - Increased heart rate and respiration
B - Behavior: confusion and dizziness
E - Emergency — exit the heat
R - Red and dry skin
N - Nausea, cramping, vomiting
A - Absence of sweat
T - Temperature over 104 degrees
E - Emergency — exit the heat
With no symptoms for the Es, it is vital to exit the heat, and if you realize you have these symptoms, it is an emergency and call for help. If you are caring for someone and you suspect heat stress, do the following:
- Get the person 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 or 102 degrees.
- 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. 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, non-alcoholic beverages regardless of their activity level.
- 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 water they should drink while the weather is hot.
- Take them to air-conditioned locations if they have transportation problems.
We all know summers are brutal in Central and Southern Arizona, so remember to take care of yourself and your elderly loved ones. JN
Bob Roth is managing partner of Cypress HomeCare Solutions.