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Summer safety: Tips for seniors

Retirement Living Lifestyle Wellbeing
09 February 2021
Outdoor pool

Summer can be deadly.

Heat is the natural hazard associated with the highest mortality in Australia, according to Dr Arnagretta Hunter, from the Australian National University.

“When heatwaves occur, the death toll routinely reaches into the hundreds. For example, the 2009 heatwave across southeast Australia resulted in close to 500 deaths,” she writes in her article Hot and bothered: heat affects all of us, but older people face the highest health risks.

Citing The Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Hunter notes Australian summer temperatures have risen by 1.66°C over the past 20 years. And in the past century there’s been a significant increase in the number, intensity and duration of heatwaves during our summers.

Heatwaves pose serious health risks for all people, but in particular older people. In this article we explain heat stress, the signs, why seniors are more vulnerable and what steps you can take to help prevent it happening to you.

What is heat stress?

Heat stress occurs when your body cannot cool itself enough to maintain a healthy temperature (around 37°C).

The body normally cools itself by sweating, but sometimes sweating isn’t enough and the body temperature keeps rising. Heat stress is also known as hyperthermia.

Heat-related illnesses range from mild conditions such as a rash or cramps to more serious conditions such as dehydration and potentially life-threatening conditions such as heatstroke.

When it is very hot, you may be at increased risk of heat stress.

What are the signs of heat stress?

The symptoms depend on the heat-related illness but may include:

  • hot and dry skin
  • paleness
  • rapid heart rate
  • muscle cramps
  • nausea and vomiting
  • disorientation and confusion
  • delirium
  • fainting or coma
  • worsening of pre-existing medical conditions.

You should seek medical care immediately if you have, or someone you know has, the symptoms of heat-related illness.

Why are seniors more vulnerable to heat stress?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines three main reasons why older people are more likely to suffer heat stress.

  1. Older people do not adjust to as well as younger people to sharp changes in temperature. Elderly skin is not able to produce sweat and cool the body as efficiently as younger skin.
  2. Older people are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that alters normal body responses to heat. Diabetes and heart and kidney disease are particular areas of concern.
  3. Older people are more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat.

In addition, living alone can increase your risk of suffering a heat-related illness, because there’s no-one else to notice you are unwell or to take care of you.

If you are frail, have reduced mobility or cognitive decline, it may be difficult for you to take care of yourself in hot weather.

Tips to help seniors stay cool

We can’t control the weather but we can take practical steps to keep ourselves safe during a heatwave.

You should cancel or postpone outdoor activities and stay cool, stay hydrated and stay informed.

Stay cool and hydrated

  • Stay in a cool environment as much as possible. If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, look to seek it out elsewhere e.g. Shopping all, library or the movie cinema
  • Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
  • If your doctor limits the amount of fluids you drink or has you on fluid medication, ask them how much you should drink during summer and times of hot weather.
  • Avoid the use of a stove or oven – it will make you and your house warmer.
  • Wear loose fitting, lightweight clothing to stay cool
  • Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
  • Avoid engaging in strenuous activities in the hot hours of the day and get plenty of rest.
  • Check on a friend or neighbour and have someone do the same for you.

It’s important to stay informed, so check the Bureau of Meteorology for warnings about hot weather and the local news for heatwave-related updates.

Experts urge everyone, but particularly the elderly, to take steps to prevent heat stress on days when the temperature is predicted to rise above 30°C. Temperatures above 37°C are particularly dangerous. Take note of humidity levels too, because sweating is not as effective at cooling you down when the weather is very humid.

You can check out the Australian Government’s healthdirect website for more information on how to prevent heat-related illness.

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