New clients come to us for a wide variety of reasons. One common cause that always surprises me is that they became dehydrated and wound up in the hospital. After all, running water is almost universally available in America, and most people have bottles of water in their home as well.
How difficult can it be to get plenty to drink?
Turns out, it’s not that simple. There are a number of reasons why many older people fail to get the fluid intake their bodies need to function properly, and the health consequences can be very serious. Keep reading for some of the common causes of dehydration in the elderly and what you can do to help:
What is dehydration?
Let’s start with the basics: what is dehydration? It’s normal to lose fluids from your body every day through sweating, urinating and even breathing. Usually, you replace those liquids through eating and drinking, but if you lose too much water and don’t replace it, you become dehydrated.
Dehydration is far more than just not drinking enough water or being a little bit thirsty, though: It’s when the body’s water levels are so low that it disrupts normal functioning.
Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how much fluid is missing from your body, and dehydration can affect absolutely anyone. Unfortunately, however, it’s a problem that affects the elderly far more often than any other population. In fact, according to geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, adults between the ages of 85 and 99 are admitted to the hospital for dehydration 6 times more often than other adults.
Complications of dehydration
Not getting enough fluids can be dangerous for anyone, but when it comes to the elderly, it’s far more likely to be serious. If not identified and treated, dehydration can quickly lead to significant health problems including dizziness, low blood pressure, confusion, rapid pulse, and loss of consciousness. In cases of advanced dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic, patients may even experience seizures, kidney failure, brain swelling, and coma.
What causes dehydration in the elderly?
At the most basic level, dehydration in the elderly is caused in the same way as dehydration in the rest of the adult population: not enough fluids in the body. The issue is that older adults often suffer from one of more physical ailments which help hasten the process.
- As adults age, they tend to lose muscle mass throughout the body. As muscle is the main storehouse for water, this means that an older adult will dehydrate faster than a younger person of similar size.
- Many medications commonly prescribed to older adults, such as blood pressure medication or laxatives, can contribute to dehydration.
- Undiagnosed infections, such as those affecting the lungs or bladder, can lead to loss of fluids.
- Older adults do not feel thirst as keenly as younger adults and therefore may not realize that they need water.
Another problem we frequently see, although not a medical issue, is that many seniors who take diuretics simply avoid water because they don’t want to take extra trips to the bathroom or are concerned about accidents.
What are the signs of dehydration?
If you care for an elderly loved one, you should always be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of dehydration. Some of the most common include:
- Dry or sticky mouth
- Dark yellow urine
- Too few bathroom trips throughout the day
- Muscle cramps
More serious symptoms may include:
- Rapid breathing and heartrate
- Low blood pressure
- Sunken eyes
- Sleepiness or confusion
Helping your older adult stay hydrated
Because the elderly don’t feel thirst as keenly as younger adults, it can be difficult to convince them that they need to drink a glass of water. Luckily, there are several ways you can help your older loved one get enough fluids without a fight. Here are some of my favorites:
- Offer water that’s lightly flavored with fruit juice or has a squeezed orange wedge, or try Pedialyte, Gatorade, or coconut water. Just remember to avoid caffeinated beverages, as they are dehydrating!
- Offer foods that have a high water content, such as ice pops, soups, yogurt, or Jell-O (can be sugar-free).
- Make a chart so your loved one can visually keep track of how much water or other fluids they’ve had throughout the day.
- Invest in technology aimed to help prevent dehydration:
- “Smart hydration reminder” Ulla is a timer you can attach to any water bottle that will light up and blink several times each hour, reminding your older adult that it’s time to drink.
- A water bottle like H2O Pal, which sends personalized, timely notifications to an app on a smart phone or other device. If your loved one likes to play on their tablet, this is a great way to “gamify” hydration!
- Try a wearable hydration monitor. Although they are generally marketed to athletes, the devices (which let users know current hydration levels and how much they should drink), are just as beneficial for seniors.
Dehydration can be a tricky problem when it comes to the elderly, especially because so many other factors can come into play. But with a little thoughtful planning (that takes your loved one’s needs and preferences into consideration), it is a problem that can be greatly minimized.
Please note: if your older adult is displaying any symptoms of dehydration, you should call their doctor’s office right away. If they seem seriously dehydrated, call an ambulance. Dehydration can very quickly lead to grave consequences in the elderly if not dealt with in a timely fashion.
Tell us: how have you helped your older loved one stay on top of their hydration goals?