Symptoms of Dehydration in Seniors

senior standing

A concern at SNEP Special Needs Emergency Preparedness, is dehydration. In seniors it can be unseen until it gets to be a serious medical problem, especially in an emergency situation where stress is heightened.

In order to understand what the symptoms of dehydration are and how to treat them, we must first understand what it is. According to the Mayo Clinic, Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in, and your body doesn't have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. Without those fluids being replaced, you will get dehydrated.

The idea to drink the normal amount of water you need in a day to remain hydrated sounds very simplistic at first glance, yet dehydration remains a major concern among seniors, particularly those in long term care facilities.

Seniors are at higher risk for dehydration than the general population because:

  • Our sensation of thirst decreases as we age
  • The kidneys begin to slowly lose the ability to retain fluids starting from 50 and becoming more noticeable around age 70
  • Some medications can act as a diuretic while others can cause excessive sweating
  • Seniors that are prone to urinary incontinence or frequent urinating during the night will intentionally restrict their fluid intake early in the day to avoid embarrassing situations or having to get up excessively during the night
  • The stomach flu and food poisoning can cause dehydration and make it challenging for seniors to eat or keep food or liquids down
  • For those with limited mobility, getting up to get fluids can be a challenge. If they rely on caregivers to provide fluids, the caregiver may not be able to sense when the senior needs something to drink
  • When a senior has a cognitive disorder such as dementia they may forget that they were in the process of going to the sink to get a glass of water or other beverage
  • They may not be able to voice due to a cognitive or physical disability that they need something to drink

Some of the symptoms of dehydration among seniors can mimic those of dementia so it's important to be aware and recognize them early on.

Symptoms of dehydration among the elderly to look out for are:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness and difficulty walking
  • Exhaustion
  • Dry skin and dry mouth as well as dryness around the mouth, lips and tongue
  • Thirst (though not always)
  • Irritability
  • Lack of sweating
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sunken eyes
  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Decreased urination
  • Dark coloured urine (some vitamins and medications can cause this too)
  • Constipation
  • Decreased tears
  • Feeling faint and actually fainting

A large percentage of our water intake comes from food especially those that have a high water content such as lettuce, cucumber, celery, as well as fruits like grapefruit, watermelon, and blackberries. Smaller meals 6 times a day instead of 3 larger meals a day with water or another beverage can help the body retain more fluids.

Having the seniors preferred fluids on hand and readily available is a great way to encourage them to drink often. Caffeinated coffee, tea and sodas are all diuretics which should be drank in moderation. I personally am an avid tea drinker. What's worked for me is to have a glass of water or herbal tea before or after a cup of caffeinated tea to balance the affects of the caffeine. If they don't like the taste of water a great tip that I've converted many people to is adding slices of cucumbers or fruits such as lemon, orange, berries, and mint to make drinking water a treat. Water flavored with sliced fruits and vegetables can be made quickly in a pitcher and last 2-3 days in the fridge.

Keeping pitchers of water and cups in stations around the house, or if the senior has limited mobility, small water bottles in areas such as beside the bed, their favorite chair, the computer, dinner table and bathroom sink are all excellent since they're more likely to drink water if it's within sight and easy access.

Posting reminders to drink water around the house and sink is a great way to encourage seniors to drink more water. A favorite recommendation is to have pictures of their grandchildren and other relatives holding signs encouraging them to drink more water. For some, posting pictures of loved ones instead of post it notes is a better way to receive the message of drinking more water since it feels less like their being told outright what to do.

It's important for families and caregivers to able to recognize signs of dehydration early and act on them to prevent further health issues and emergency situations such as fainting. Thankfully, dehydration is preventable and can easily be treated. We have additional resources below that we encourage you to check out for more information on this topic.

Author: Giada Crosbie

Read more about Giada and the SNEP team here

Top Reasons for Dehydration in Seniors
Dehydration (in care facilities)
Dehydration in The Elderly
Elderly Dehydration – 18 Signs and Symptoms to Look For
Elderly Dehydration – Prevention and Treatment

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