SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Ways to beat the summer heat

Maureen Wendt

The pleasures of summer include longer, warmer and sunnier days, celebrations with family and friends, and backyard barbecues. Summer can also bring with it additional safety challenges. Summer safety — it's something we should all be thinking about. This is a good time to review some tips for all ages.

Limit your exposure to the sun. Place comfortable lawn chairs in shaded areas. Stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are the strongest.

During the summer heat, it is especially important to drink lots of fluids. Drink a glass of water hourly, or keep a cool glass of water within arm's reach as a reminder to drink. Provide non-alcoholic beer or lemonade for backyard barbecues.

As our bodies age, skin and fat tissue (the body's insulators) tend to thin. Because of that change, seniors regulate temperature less efficiently, putting them at greater risk than others from heat-related health problems. Signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion are less pronounced in seniors, who: tend to perspire less than younger people, so their bodies don't shed heat as easily as they once did; may lose some of their sense of thirst and not feel thirsty until severe dehydration has set in; and may take high blood pressure and heart disease medications that remove salt and fluids from the body. These medications, coupled with heat, can cause a senior to become dehydrated-leading to confusion, organ damage and even death.

Here are some tips to help seniors beat the heat.

Slow down. Strenuous activity in extremely hot weather adds strain to the heart. If you must be active, choose the coolest part of the day.

Take regular breaks when engaging in physical activity on warm days. If you think that you, or someone else, show signs of heat-related illness, stop your activity, find a cool place, drink fluids and apply cool compresses.

Stay cool. If you don't have air conditioning, spend time at an air-conditioned shopping center, senior center, library, movie theater, restaurant or place of worship.

Plan outdoor activities in the cooler early morning or evening hours

Stay in the shade. A covered porch or under a tree are good choices.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat and use an umbrella to protected yourself from sun overexposure.

Use U/V skin protection.

Stay cool in your home. If you must be at home without air conditioning:

— Stay in the coolest part of the house, usually the lowest floor;

— Close curtains or shades on sunny windows to keep out heat and light;

— Use portable and ceiling fans, and/or battery-operated hand-held fans and misters;

— Install outdoor awnings or sun screens; use wet washcloths or ice cubes wrapped in a washcloth to pat your wrists, face and back of the neck;

— Take cool baths or showers;

— Stay hydrated. Carry water or juice with you and drink continuously even if you do not feel thirsty. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which dehydrate the body.

— Eat small meals and eat more often. Avoid foods that are high in protein, which increase metabolic heat. Sandwiches, salads, fresh fruit and vegetables are good choices.

— Avoid using salt tablets unless directed to do so by a physician.

— Dress for the heat. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing. Light colors will reflect away some of the sun's energy.

— Discuss with your doctor how medications and/or chronic conditions may affect your body's ability to manage heat.

— Take the heat seriously. Rapid heartbeat, dizziness, diarrhea, nausea, headache, chest pain, fatigue, clammy skin, mental changes or breathing problems are warning signs that you should seek immediate medical attention.

Heat related illnesses can get serious quickly, so I hope these tips are helpful.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .