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Recognizing & Avoiding Dehydration in the Elderly

As we head toward the hot and humid weather of the summer, it is important for us all to remember to stay hydrated -- especially the elderly. As we get older, we are more prone to dehydration. This is because the water content of our bodies gets dryer, we get health conditions that contribute to dehydration, and our natural thirst response begins to diminish. At a certain point, we even can lose the physical or mental ability to get water when we need it. When we need to rely on others, such as nursing home staff, for water, it can lead to negligence that contributes to dehydration symptoms and health problems.

Effects of Dehydration on Elderly

  • Discomfort. It is a terrible feeling to be thirsty for extended periods of time. Many nursing home residents complain of constantly being thirsty.
  • Constipation. The body needs water to help remove waste. The lack of water due to dehydration can lead to constipation.
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs). According to The Cleveland Health Clinic, the UTI “occurs in about 6 to 16 percent of women over age 65, 20 percent of women over age 80, and 25 to 50 percent of women living in nursing facilities. The condition occurs in about 6 to 16 percent of women over age 65, 20 percent of women over age 80, and 25 to 50 percent of women living in nursing facilities.”
  • Electrolyte imbalances. We have a critical balance of water and sodium (electrolytes are various salts our body uses). When we get dehydrated the balance is thrown off. Electrolytes play a role in waste removal, muscle function, and brain function. A serious electrolyte imbalance can trigger kidney problems, loss of balance, or even seizures.
  • Kidney problems. The effects of dehydration can lead to kidney stones, poor kidney function, or even kidney failure.
  • Loss of balance. Dehydration has an impact on muscle and brain function, leading to dizziness or loss of balance. The elderly are at risk of severe injuries and death from even minor slips and falls. Many of these falls are preventable, including those that were caused by the loss of balance due to a lack of proper hydration. In certain nursing home situations, the elderly are too frail to get water without assistance, but their intense thirst drives them to try to get water on their own, putting them at risk of a fall.

Why Are the Elderly More Prone to Dehydration?

The elderly are more susceptible to dehydration than younger people because they tend to have a lower fluid content in their bodies. It’s a natural change in the water/sodium balance as we age. Many elderly people have health conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease, that have a dehydrating effect. They also commonly take medications, such as diuretics and blood pressure medication, that require water from our bodies, contributing to dehydration. Like all of us, the elderly can be dehydrated by situations that involve excessive sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting, but in the elderly, the risk of dehydration is more serious.

To make matters worse, we begin to lose the signal that tells us we’re getting dehydrated. Our body gives us a signal, the sensation of being thirsty, when we get dehydrated, which compels us to get something to drink. As we get older, we gradually lose that thirst response. So we are less aware of how dehydrated we might be.

There is also the factor of physical and mental impairment, where the elderly count on others to ensure that they are getting enough water. They might have trouble getting up to get a drink or need help getting the drink to their lips. In cases where they are really infirm, they need water supplied intravenously.

When we reach the point that we need help with basic functions, like eating and drinking, many people turn to nursing homes. Dehydration is possibly the most common type of abuse and neglect at nursing homes. Nursing homes are notoriously understaffed, and in most facilities, there are too few nurses and aids to meet the needs of the residents. Dehydration is very common, and it’s important to know the signs.

Signs of Dehydration

  • Confusion, dizziness, or disorientation
  • Cracked lips
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Drowsiness
  • Dryness of the mouth, including the lips and tongue
  • Dry skin
  • Difficulty walking
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Muscle cramps
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sunken eyes

If you suspect nursing home abuse or neglect, trust your instincts and know the signs. To learn more about your legal rights and options, contact Brown & Barron’s Baltimore attorneys online or at (410) 698-1717 for a free consultation.

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