Dehydration in the Elderly: How to Avoid

Just how common is dehydration in the elderly?

Dehydration is a major cause for hospitalization in people over age 65.  It has been reported as one of the top ten reasons for Medicare patient hospital stays. Statistics show that almost half of the seniors seen in emergency rooms for any reason are also at least mildly dehydrated.   Mild dehydration may not be an emergency, but severe dehydration in the elderly can be fatal.

When the body takes in less water than it puts out, dehydration results.  The balance of water and electrolytes is needed for temperature regulation and for healthy cells and tissues, and that delicate balance can be easily tipped.

A distinct problem is that caregivers or seniors themselves can easily miss symptoms of dehydration.  Signs like sleepiness or irritability can be explained away by a number of causes. So, being aware of dehydration symptoms is crucial. Unaddressed dehydration will lead to major health risk.   Below are some dehydration signs:

Some Symptoms of Dehydration in the Elderly

  • Confusion
  • Dry mouth, dry tongue with thick saliva
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty passing urine or reduced amounts that are dark yellow
  • Dizziness that becomes worse on standing
  • Weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Cramping in arms or legs
  • Dry, warm skin
  • Flushed face
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Malaise
  • Constipation

If you suspect dehydration in a senior, sports drinks provide water and electrolytes to help regain the needed fluid balance.  If dehydration is a possibility you must, of course, seek medical advice immediately.

Why are seniors at increased risk for dehydration?  One reason is that seniors have 10% less fluid in their bodies than younger adults.  That fluid ratio alone makes dehydration more likely.  Then there is the “med connection.”   Multiple medicines are a part of many seniors’ daily routine.  Dehydration in the elderly can also be caused by diuretics or laxatives, or can be a side effect of other medications.  Also, even normal aging can make people more vulnerable to illness.  So, conditions such as diarrhea, hyperglycemia or infection can lead to dehydration.  It can be caused by simply by not drinking enough, as well.  Below is a quick list of causes:

Reasons for Dehydration in the Elderly

  • Taking medicines that increase urination
  • Not drinking because they do not feel as thirsty as younger people
  • Having less body fluid ratio
  • Having reduced kidney function
  • Choosing not to drink because of incontinence
  • Having physical problems or conditions which make it difficult to move around or commuincate

Think about it.  What if it is difficult to just hold a glass?  What if it’s painful to get up to go get a drink?  What if is is hard communicate needs to a caregiver?  It certainly makes sense that dehydration in the elderly is so common.

So just what can a caregiver do to help a senior avoid dehydration?  Drinking water, even when the senior doesn’t “feel thirsty” is the best and easiest plan.  Make water a habit!  Here are other strategies and tips to aid you in encouraging proper hydration:

Avoiding Dehydration in the Elderly

  • Offer an appropriate amount of fluids daily (usually between 6-8 glasses)
  • Encourage drinking even if senior is not thirsty by using smaller glasses or smaller portions (say, a third of a glass)
  • If a senior is not drinking enough, increase intake gradually
  • Consider checking body weight regularly; fluctuations of 2-3 lbs per day may indicate irregular fluid intake
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure
  • Remember, water doesn’t have to come in a bottle! A diet should include broth or low-sodium soups as well as fruit juices, soft fruits, and vegetables. For example cucumbers and pineapple are both over 95% water
  • Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics and should be avoided or at least limited

Being aware of the potential problem is half the battle.  With planning and foresight, the senior you care for need not be a statistic.