Dangers of Dehydration in Seniors: What Caregivers Need to Know
One of the biggest health risks to seniors can be prevented by the most basic of resources – water. Dehydration can cause a life-threatening cascade of problems over a few hours or days, and many people get dehydrated without realizing it. Others are unable to say they’re thirsty. That’s why it’s important for caregivers and family members to learn about this common but preventable problem.
Why older people are more prone to dehydration
Geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, writes in The Gift of Caring that adults between age 85 and 99 are admitted to the hospital because of dehydration 6 times more often than other adults. But you don’t have to be in your 80s to be at risk. As we age, our bodies lose muscle mass, which is our main storehouse for water. This means older adults get dehydrated faster than younger adults of similar size.
No matter what your muscle mass, some medications contribute to dehydration, as do undiagnosed infections. Sometimes people with urinary incontinence cut back on fluids to avoid the hassle of undergarment changes, especially during outings or when company is present. Other factors can include dementia, mobility issues, or the inability to request a drink.
Possible complications of untreated dehydration
Dehydration can cause dizziness, delirium and low blood pressure, all of which can lead to falls and injury. In cases of advanced dehydration, the Mayo Clinic lists shock, seizures, kidney failure, brain swelling and coma as potential complications. Left undiagnosed and untreated, dehydration can be fatal.
Know the signs of dehydration
The Illinois Council on Long Term Care recommends that you consider dehydration any time there’s a rapid change in your loved one’s mental state or awareness. A sunken look to the eyes, a dry mouth, and skin that doesn’t recover its normal appearance after you pinch a small section are red flags of advanced dehydration, which is a medical emergency. Medical symptoms of severe dehydration include a rapid heartbeat, lower than normal blood pressure, a decrease in urine output, and possibly a fever.
Steps to keeping everyone hydrated
Reminding your parent to drink a glass of water, juice, or milk every couple of hours may be enough to keep him or her fully hydrated. If your loved one is deliberately cutting down on fluids to reduce trips to the bathroom, try to offer foods with a higher water content — Eckstrom recommends soups, yogurt, and produce as hydrating choices —and start figuring out how to make toileting easier so he or she won’t be tempted to go thirsty.
If you’re curious about how much water your parent is drinking, make a chart. This can also establish a benchmark to share with healthcare providers if your mom or dad has a marked decrease or increase in fluid intake later on.
What to do if you suspect dehydration
Call your doctor’s office or the on-call physician if you think your loved one is even mildly dehydrated. This is different from the advice for younger adults, who can often recover on their own with rest and fluids. If your loved one seems seriously dehydrated—with sunken eyes, dry mouth, little or no urine output, or disorientation—get to the emergency room.
Dehydration in seniors can be serious, but prevention is usually simple. Take the time to check your loved one for signs of dehydration daily, offer lots of tempting non-alcoholic drinks and foods with high water content, and seek help if you suspect a problem.