Caregivers Must Take Special Precautions in the Summer
Tips for Protecting Vulnerable Seniors
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Attention, caregivers: summer sun, heat and smog can be harmful to your older relative's already fragile health.
At this time of year, the elements bring increased risk for certain problems, some potentially fatal. These include: decreased circulation and an altered sensation of thirst; chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease; improper or overuse of medications; and being significantly underweight or overweight.
The following tips will help you protect your relative's health and keep him or her comfortable during the dog days of summer:
Before planning your day, listen to the weather forecast for temperature, humidity level and air quality reading.
Stay indoors and keep windows closed when smog alerts are issued.
Close blinds and curtains to block the sun's powerful summer rays.
Have your relative avoid all unnecessary physical activity.
Serve lighter, more frequent meals and offer more fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content. Avoid hot, spicy, high-fat and protein-rich foods.
Offer plenty of extra fluids, regardless of whether your relative expresses thirst, and be sure to take some beverages along whenever you go out. Water is best, but if he or she isn't a water drinker, try vegetable juice or diluted fruit juice. Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. If your relative is on fluid restrictions or a special diet, consult with the doctor before making any changes.
For cooking, use a microwave oven, toaster oven or barbecue rather than a conventional oven or stovetop. Consider buying pre-cooked foods that only require warming. An even cooler alternative is to order takeout food.
If you don't have central air-conditioning, use fans or window air-conditioners to improve airflow and evaporate sweat. Stay on the lowest possible floor of your home, preferably on the shaded side. If necessary, cool your relative with a refreshing bath, shower or sponge bath, or by placing a cool washcloth on wrists and forehead. Open windows in the evening if there's a breeze.
If you don't have an air-conditioning unit, seriously consider getting one, especially if you and your relative can't easily get out. Otherwise, plan to spend the hottest part of the day in a climate-controlled environment: a friend's or relative's home or a public place such as a seniors' center, library or shopping mall.
If you need to go out with your relative, do so in the morning before the heat reaches its peak, or in the evening. Avoid situations involving a crowd. If your vehicle isn't air-conditioned, time your trips and plan your routes to avoid traffic congestion. Before getting in, open all the windows or doors to let heat escape. Never leave your relative in your vehicle while doing errands, as heat can quickly build up to a dangerous level during the summer months.
- Whenever you go out, see to it that your relative is wearing sturdy, comfortable shoes with good treads, and that he or she has any recommended mobility aids.
One final piece of advice: Don't forget to protect yourself from the ill effects of excessive summer sun, heat and smog. You matter, too!
If Your Relative Lives Alone
- Make daily checks during heat waves to ensure your relative is eating and especially drinking sufficiently (arrange for more groceries as necessary), isn't overdressed and is acting normally. Seek medical attention if you have any concerns about his or her physical or mental state.
- Ensure any air conditioners or fans are in good repair and being used.
- Help to obtain an air conditioning unit if your relative doesn't have one, or arrange during a heat wave for him or her to stay with someone (you, another relative or a friend) whose home is climate-controlled.
- Provide or arrange for transportation to appointments, for errands, or to take your relative to a cool place. Walking any distance or waiting at bus stops in extreme weather is not advisable.
- If you live at a distance, arrange for a local friend or neighbor to make a daily visit. Supply your relative with a list of local businesses that offer delivery service, including grocery stores and pharmacies, so he or she doesn't feel the need to venture out in extreme conditions. If your relative doesn't have air conditioning, call the local public health office or Agency on Aging to find out if there's a program that subsidizes the cost of air conditioners, or a public cooling center in the area.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.