Dehydration in the Elderly

Identifying signs of illness in a loved one is sometimes a challenge. Some illnesses have clear signs while some don’t but have subtle effects in the body every day. Dehydration in elderly, depending on its severity, may cause subtle signs but will bring huge effects in the elderly. Hence, caregivers of the elderly should learn how to recognize its signs, learn its remedies and how to prevent it.

Why Do Elders Get Dehydrated Easily?

Dehydration in the elderly occurs when the amount of water that he or she loses is more than the amount he or she takes in. The body requires adequate fluid to regulate blood pressure, control temperature by sweating, and remove wastes. Some of the reasons of elderly dehydration are listed below:

  • Medications: Many seniors are under different medications. Some of the medications are diuretic while some increase sweating in patients such as antihistamines and laxatives.
  • Reduced sense of thirst: The sense of thirst decreases with age. Some seniors are not strong enough to get a drink when thirsty. Some rely on caregivers who cannot tell when they are thirsty, hence lead to dehydration.
  • Reduced kidney function: The kidney function in the body decreases with age and this causes a decline in fluid conservation. The decreased function progress at 50 years but it becomes more acute and noticeable at 70 years.
  • Illness: The elderly may be dehydrated quickly because of some illness such as vomiting and/or diarrhea.

What Are the Symptoms of Dehydration in the Elderly?

Signs of Mild Dehydration

  • Headaches
  • Irritability or sleepiness
  • A dry mouth or a dry tongue with thick saliva
  • Feeling unwell and weakness
  • Limb cramping
  • Crying with few or no tears
  • Inability to urinate or urinating small amounts or dark or deep yellow urine

Signs of Serious Dehydration

  • A rapid weak pulse
  • Abnormal faster breathing
  • Bloating
  • Convulsions
  • Sunken dry eyes with few or no tears
  • Severe muscle contractions and cramping in the stomach, back, and limbs
  • Low blood pressure
  • Wrinkled skin with no elasticity

Complications It May Cause

Dehydration in the elderly may cause serious complications when not treated on time. These complications include:

  • Heat injuries: Old people may experience heat injuries if they do not take enough fluids when exercising vigorously or sweating heavily. The injuries have varying severity and include mild heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and a life-threatening heatstroke.
  • Cerebral edema or swelling of the brain: Sometimes the body absorbs too much in the cells when an elderly person takes fluids after a period of dehydration. The excess water causes swelling and rapture in some cells. Serious complications result when brain cells swell.
  • Seizures: Electrolytes like sodium and potassium help in transmission of signals from one cell to another. Electrical messages may be mixed up when electrolytes are out of balance. This may cause involuntary muscle contractions and unconsciousness in some cases.
  • Hypovolemic shock or low blood volume shock: It is a serious and sometime life-threatening consequence of dehydration in the elderly. The condition occurs when low blood volume leads to a decrease in blood pressure and oxygen supply in the body.
  • Kidney failure: It is potentially life-threatening and occurs when kidneys in old people cannot eliminate wastes and excess fluids in the blood.

When to Seek Medical Help

An elder adult should see a doctor immediately if he or she:

  • Vomits all fluids.
  • Passes bloody or black stool.
  • Shows signs of mild or moderate dehydration.
  • Has severe diarrhea with or without fever or vomiting.
  • Is less active, sleepier than usual, disoriented or irritable.

The caregiver should call 911 or any other emergency medical number or rush to the nearest emergency room if he or she suspects that an elderly person is severely dehydrated.

What Can You Do to Treat Dehydrated Elder People?

One remedy to dehydration in the elderly is to get the dehydrated persons to take fluids, and encourage the person to:

  • Sip water in small amounts.
  • Take drinks that contain electrolyte or carbohydrate such as Gatorade and Pedialyte.
  • Suck ice chips.
  • Suck popsicles made of sports drinks and juices.
  • Sip fluids a straw.
  • Take fluids even when he or she is not thirsty.

You can cool the dehydrated person if he or she has a high temperature or has been exposed to heat in the following ways:

  • Remove excess clothing and loosen the remaining clothing.
  • Place the person in an air-conditioned area to restore the body temperature back to normal and break the cycle of heat exposure.
  • Spray lukewarm water using misters or a spray bottle on the skin surface exposed to heat.
  • Do not expose the skin to excess cold such as ice water or packs.

How Can You Prevent Dehydration in the Elderly?

Some of the ways to prevent dehydration in seniors include:

  • Encourage the elderly to take fluids in small amounts throughout the day instead of large amounts at once.
  • Ensure the elderly take five eight-ounces glasses of water daily, which keeps them hydrated and lower the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Encourage the elderly to eat foods that are high in water to meet their daily water requirements, which could include dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.
  • To make it easier for the elderly to take more fluids voluntarily, you can include juice, water, or milk in every meal and place their favorite beverage nearby.
  • Caregivers and the elderly should know the early signs of dehydration. 
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