When Elders Need Care: Dehydration Issues

By Sylvia Todor
Sylvia Todor AuthorDehydration can lead to problems for people at any age, but for older adults the risks are even greater and the contributing factors are more complex. Sylvia Todor, Regional Marketing Director with Kindred at Home, explains why dehydration is such a serious issue for the elderly.

One cause of dehydration is physical changes in the body. As we age, our bodies lose water content – young adults may have at least six liters more water in their bodies than someone in their 70s or 80s. Older adults also experience a decreased sense of thirst. Even when their bodies need water, they may not feel thirsty. Kidney function declines, as well, which lessens the body's ability to retain water.

There may also be mobility issues that make it more difficult for the elderly to get up and get a drink or go to the bathroom when they need to. Conditions such as incontinence can increase water loss and may make the person avoid drinking fluids to avoid the embarrassment of an accident. Other factors that increase the risk of dehydration include medications such as diuretics, problems swallowing, and overly warm homes or environments.

Mild dehydration can cause headaches and muscle cramps, but severe dehydration is a serious problem which can lead to shock or unconsciousness. In older adults, there is a greater likelihood that dehydration will have an impact on the immune system and organs. Even in medical settings, however, it isn't always easy to detect. An article in Geriatrics and Aging, Dehydration in Geriatrics, notes that "an early diagnosis is often difficult because the classical signs of dehydration may be absent or misleading in an older patient." It's important to know the risks and be aware of what signs to look for if your elderly relative or other loved one lives alone.

Elderly loved ones may not want to tell you they feel bad or need help – whether it's with getting up for food or drinks or going to the bathroom – because they don’t want to be a burden or don't want to leave their homes. But if you notice strong-smelling urine or bad breath from a dry mouth, or see signs of irritability or confusion, there could be a problem with dehydration. Treating the immediate issue is just the first step, though. It's just as important to make sure they are able to stay hydrated. Sometimes that means making it easier to access water and other beverages or making the containers easier to open or hold.

When simple adjustments around the house aren't enough, though, you may consider arranging for personal home care assistance. Professional caregivers can help remove the barriers – physical or emotional – that are keeping your elderly loved ones from staying hydrated and healthy, so that they are able to remain in their homes. They will get the help they need with the general daily tasks that get more difficult with age, such as walking, bathing or going to the bathroom. Caregivers help with grocery shopping and preparing foods, too, so you'll know your loved ones are getting well-balanced meals and adequate fluids. And the added benefits of companionship and emotional support help them feel safe at home.