Elderly in Jeopardy During Heat Wave

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posted by Ryan Whittington on May 09, 2011

written by: Alice Endy, R.N

Summer, and summer heat waves pose a very real danger to the elderly.  Normally, our body controls and regulates elevated temperature by allowing heat loss through the skin and by evaporation.

As we age, our ability to control the body's temperature is diminished. Aging causes a decrease in the body's ability to adjust to heat and to sense temperature extremes.

The elderly are more susceptible to heat related disorders and react to sudden changes in temperatures by loosing the ability to cool down.

Those with the following chronic health conditions are at greater risk:

  • Heart Disease
  • Kidney Disease

  • Lung Disease
  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

Certain medications interfere with the body's ability to control temperature. Medications can inhibit the ability to perspire or may increase electrolyte loss.

Heat Wave

Temperatures greater than 90 degrees for more than 48 hours and humidity of 80% or greater.

Heat Cramps

Muscle pain and cramps caused by loss of water and salt from over-exertion. This condition usually affects arms, legs and abdominal muscles.


  • Stop activity
  • Give fluids

  • Massage the affected muscle

Heat Exhaustion

A form of heat-related illness that develops after several days of elevated temperatures and inadequate fluid intake. Heat exhaustion also develops when people over exert during heat and loose the fluids through profuse perspiring.


  • Flushed or red skin
  • Skin cool and pale
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion


  • Replenish fluids
  • May need to seek medical care.

Heat Stroke—Sun Stroke

Life threatening heat - related illness. Body temperature rises Body unable to sweat and cool itself.


  • Skin is red,hot and dry
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Throbing headache
  • Pulse rapid


  • Call 9-1-1
  • Move person to a cool area.
  • Body must be cooled rapidly-use ice packs, cool water,
  • Wet towels or sheets, shower or hose.
  • Do not use alcohol.
  • Monitor for breathing difficulty.

Prevention of Heat Related Conditions

  • Increase fluid intake-check with your doctor.
  • If going outdoors, take water with you at all times.
  • Stay indoors during heat of the day.
  • Close curtains or blinds during the mid- day heat if you have air conditioning.
  • Limit outdoor activity to early AM or PM
  • If you have no air conditioning--open windows for cross ventilation, use fans, take frequent cool showers, go to mall, theater, restaurant, or library during heat of the day.
  • Contact emergency management to locate heat relief shelters.
  • Clothing -- light weight, light colors, loose fitting. Wear a hat.
  • Exercise--if you must exercise be sure to drink 2 to 4 glasses of water hourly and take frequent rest periods.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine and reduce sugar-free drinks.
  • Meals- light and frequent.
  • Do not use salt tablets without consulting doctor.

Special considerations when working with the frail elderly:

  • Many elderly will not turn on air conditioning as they are often cool and do not always realize that the heat is extreme.
  • Many elderly rarely drink the normal 8 glasses daily.  It is often difficult to get them to increase fluid intake without lots of encouragement.
  • If your elder is living on a limited income they are not likely to use the air conditioner.
  • Many elderly without air conditioning may be very reluctant to open windows due to safety concerns.

The frail elderly are at extreme risk during heat waves and need daily monitoring. Be sure someone is visiting them 2-3 times a day. Do not rely on just talking on the phone as you need to be able to monitor their fluid intake and recognize changes in their condition.


Alice Endy is a Registered Nurse with advanced certification as a Gerontological Nurse.

In her role at Seniors Home Care, Alice has helped thousands provide care and support to their family members while experiencing the end of life sadness and joys. Alice cared for her mother who suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice knows only too well the problems families face as they journey through the final stages of life.

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