As summer temperatures start to soar, so do the concerns around dehydration particularly in seniors. Family members and caregivers who check in on elderly parents or relatives should be aware of prevention measures, how to recognize the signs, and properly handle dehydration.

“When our bodies are not consuming enough fluid to balance the water lost (i.e. through exercise, illness, increased urination, drinking alcohol, etc.), we can become dehydrated. The importance of drinking water every day cannot be over emphasized, especially during hot days,” explained Dr. Lynn Swisher, NHA, Vice President pf Health Services at Moravian Manor Communities. “Our body is 60% water and we must remember to keep our water intake in balance and not become dehydrated.”

Dr. Swisher pointed out several signs of dehydration as:

  • Reduced cognitive processing
  • Thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Infrequent urination & dark colored urine
  • Confused or dazed state of awareness 

“Another more concerning fact is that dehydration can place those with clotting disorders at increased risk for a stroke,” she continued.

What Can Cause Dehydration in Seniors

While many cases of dehydration in seniors occurs when someone does not drink enough water, it may happen for other reasons including diarrhea, increased excessive sweating, loss of blood, and underlying health issues such as diabetes. Many prescribed over-the-counter medications can also cause dehydration as a side effects, such as diuretics, blood pressure and anti-depression medications.

For seniors, there are also physical changes with an aging body that can make them more at risk for dehydration. Older adults often have a reduced physical sense of thirst, so even if their body needs more fluids, they might not realize it. By the time they feel thirsty, that’s already an indication of early dehydration. Seniors also have less lean tissue in their body composition, where the body stores water,

In addition, body composition changes that come with aging can impact seniors and proper hydration. The body is made up of around 60% water, mostly stored in lean tissue. Because seniors have less lean tissue due to these physical changes, they already have less stored water in their bodies to start with than younger adults.

Mobility also comes into play, as seniors may have a more difficult time getting up to get something to drink or it’s too much of an effort to visit the restroom frequently if they are properly hydrating. Kidney function also can deteriorate as we age, making it harder to conserve fluids.

Another common cause of dehydration is the fact that many of the early symptoms can be attributed to medical conditions, medication side effects or others reasons that get dismissed as something other than dehydration.

How Dehydration Affects Seniors

Regardless of age, our bodies need water for a variety of functions. Water helps regulate our body temperature through sweating, carries nutrients to cells, pumps blood to muscles, supports mental performance, lubricates and cushions joints, and eliminates bodily waste. This is why even becoming mildly dehydrated can have serious consequences for seniors.

Without proper hydration, memory and attention can be impacted, and seniors may have slower reaction times in addition to low blood pressure, weakness, dizziness and the increased risk of falls. In addition, dehydration can lead to an increased risk for kidney stones, urinary tract infections, constipation and respiratory tract infections. Underlying health conditions like cardiac or renal problems can also be impacted by poor hydration and lead to unexpected hospital stays.

Recognizing Common Signs & Symptoms

Detecting when a senior is dehydrated is not always easy as the symptoms can be subtle. In addition to the list provided above, these are other signs to watch for in seniors.

  • Dry or sticky mouth and tongue
  • Decreased urination or constipation or trouble using the bathroom; dark or deep yellow urine
  • Cramping in limbs
  • Headaches
  • Low sweat production
  • Exhaustion or change in mood
  • Weakness, general feeling of being unwell
  • Sleepiness or irritability
  • Drop in blood pressure 
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Breathing faster than normal
  • Convulsions
  • Severe cramping and muscle contractions in limbs, back and stomach
  • Difficulty walking
  • Mental confusion or disorientation
  • Bloated stomach
  • Rapid but weak pulse
  • Dry skin
  • Sunken eyes with few or no tears
  • Skin that doesn’t bounce back/less skin elasticity

Recovering from Dehydration

It’s imperative that seniors who are dehydrated and showing symptoms seek the advice of their physician. Individuals with mild cases may be directed to drink water or electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade to replenish lost water and minerals. Severe cases require medical intervention and will most likely be hospitalized and rehydrated intravenously.

Tips for Seniors to Stay Hydrated 

One of the most important aspect for seniors to know is to drink even when they don’t feel thirsty. While they may not be able to drink a full 8 ounces at a time, sipping on water throughout the day can support their health. Perhaps keeping a glass or bottle of water near a favorite chair, on the kitchen counter, or by the bed can remind them to take little sips throughout the entire day. 

While water is best, drinking only water can be boring. Adding some fruit or flavoring to water can help tempt the taste buds to keep drinking. Juice can be very high in sugar, so try a 50/50 mixture of juice and water if desired. Tea and coffee with caffeine, as well as alcohol, can have a diuretic effect, which leads to loss of body water, and thus should not be considered toward the daily fluid intake goal. Herbal teas or noncaffeinated beverages would be better choices to support proper hydration.

There are also plenty of foods that are high in water content that can help seniors reach their goal. Water-rich foods include watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, oranges, grapes, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, celery, yogurt, coconut water, broths and soup, skim milk, and more.

To help determine how much water you need each day, a good formula to take one-third of your weight and drink that number of ounces in water daily (160-lb person would need 60 ounces of water daily).

Seniors with certain medical conditions, particularly heart failure, may have more specific water needs, and should always consult with their doctor before changing liquid intake goals.