The Danger of Dehydration in the Elderly

It's a simple equation: if you lose more water than you take in, you will become dehydrated. We take a closer look at the importance of having adequate fluid in the body - and why it's of vital importance in the elderly

If you have a parent or other elderly relative you look after, then you may well know about some or all of their ongoing medical issues. It might be just a basic knowledge or perhaps you are intricately involved in their care and get involved with appointments, treatments, options, and decisions.

The importance of adequate fluids

Whatever the situation, and how little or much you are involved, it is worth be aware of the potential for dehydration - a lack of water. This is true at any time of year, but particularly so in the warmer months of the year.Our bodies need an adequate amount of fluid so that they can perform key functions. These include regulating temperature, maintaining blood pressure, and eliminating bodily waste.

One risk posed by dehydration is urinary infections. Not only are they more common amongst older people, they are particularly prevalent during the hot summer months. Such infections are often linked to kidney infections, requiring urgent medical treatment.

Reasons for elderly dehydration

Quite simply, dehydration occurs when we lose more water than we are taking in. This can happen with the elderly for a number of reasons:

Medicines ;- these could include diuretics, prescribed to help treat conditions such as high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, and whichwork by increasing the amount of water and salt expelled from the body as urine. Other medicines could cause the patient to sweat more, again meaning increased loss of water.

Reduced thirst - as we get older our sense of thirst becomes less acute. This combined with a decreased ability to fetch a drink, or less contact witih others who they may rely on to provide fluids, can mean dehydtation is more likely.

Reduced kidney function - we typically lose some kidney function and become less able to conserve fluids as we age. This is something that becomes more progressive in our fifties and can be particularly acute around the age of seventy upward.

Illness - instances of vomiting or cases of diarrhea can leave the elderly in particular vulnerable to dehydration

Signs of dehydration

The signs of dehydration are not always clear cut and easy to see. However, common indicators include a dry mouth, lips and tongue; sunken eyes; dry inelastic skin, drowsiness, confusion or disorientation; dizziness and low blood pressure. Of course, these may be present as a result of other conditions, so your observations will need to take this into account.

Dehydration is also indicated with a reduced and more concentrated urine output. Typically, the colour of urine is a useful guide: a hydrated person will have urine that is pale and odourless, whereas urine that is dark and somewhat strong smelling is a good indicator of dehydration. This is not an absolute test since medications and other medical conditions can also affect the colour of urine.

Preventing dehydration

If you can identify when your elderly relative is not drinking enough, you are well placed to help them. Monitoring fluid intake is one way, and encouraging them to ensure they are drinking enough can be sufficient. This may not work if they are not able to independently access a drink or have concerns about an increasing likelihood of incontinence or getting 'caught short'.

Overall though, you need to look to reduce or remove the barriers to taking in enough water, and making sure that adequte liquids are available or offered.

The content in this article is provided for information only and does not constitute medical advice.