By Sandy Silverstein
With heat waves bringing dangerously high temperatures for tens of millions of Americans, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) is providing important tips to help families affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses keep their loved ones safe.
“The dangers of extreme temperatures, which can cause heat stroke in a matter of minutes, are magnified for someone living with dementia. Dementia-related illnesses can impair a person’s ability to know when they are thirsty or in danger of overheating, communicate basic needs, and remember heat safety protocols,” said Jennifer Reeder, LCSW, SIFI, AFA’s Director of Educational and Social Services. “Taking a few simple precautions can go a long way toward keeping your loved one safe.”
AFA advises family caregivers to take the following steps:
- Help the person stay hydrated – Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses can diminish a person’s ability to know when they are thirsty, making it critically important for caregivers to monitor them and encourage them to drink frequently. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages, as these drinks may contribute to dehydration.
- Watch for hyperthermia – Dementia-related illnesses can impair a person’s ability to communicate or recognize basic needs, so caregivers cannot solely depend on waiting for the person to express that they are too hot or need to cool off. Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature caused by the body’s inability to regulate heat from the environment. Seniors and people with chronic medical conditions are most at risk. One life-threatening form of hyperthermia is heat stroke, a dangerous elevation in body temperature sparked by exposure to extreme environmental heat or the troublesome mixture of heat and humidity. Watch for warning signs such as excessive sweating, exhaustion, flushed or red skin, muscle cramps, a fast pulse, headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
- Watch out for wandering – Wandering is a very common behavior among individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s also very dangerous, as they can easily become lost or disoriented and not know how, or who, to call for help. It’s even more dangerous in extreme heat conditions, where hyperthermia can develop in a matter of minutes. Wandering can occur when the person has limited stimulation, so be sure to engage the person in physical stimulation by walking around the home, and mental stimulation through activities and engaging in conversations. Ensure the person’s basic needs (water, food, using the restroom, etc.) are being met, as wandering can often stem from an unmet need. Keep a recent photo and medical information on hand, as well as information about familiar destinations they used to frequent, to share with emergency responders to aid in search and rescue efforts if the person does wander.
- Look for signs that something is amiss, including hot, dry skin, rapid pulse, dizziness or sudden changes in mental status.
- Take immediate action – Resting in an air-conditioned room, removing clothing, applying cold compresses and drinking fluids can help cool the body. If the person faints, exhibits excessive confusion or becomes unconscious, consider this a medical emergency and call 911.
- Plan ahead – Blackouts and other power failures can sometimes occur during heat waves. Make sure that cell phones, tablets, and other electrical devices are fully charged. Flashlights should be easily accessible in case of a power failure. Have the emergency contact numbers for local utility providers, as well as the police and fire departments, readily accessible.
- Have a long-distance plan if necessary – If you don’t live near your loved one, arrange for someone who does to check on them. Inform them of emergency contacts and where important medical information can be found, such as their insurance card. Make sure the person has plenty of water and access to air-conditioning or other cooling mechanisms.
Families who have questions or would like additional information about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can speak with a licensed social worker seven days a week through the AFA Helpline by calling 866-232-8484, web chatting at www.alzfdn.org, or sending a text message to 646-586-5283. The web chat and text message features can serve individuals in more than 90 different languages.