Spring means higher temperatures, more daylight and increased activity and other changes. Make sure your elderly patients and their family members aren’t sidelined by the change of seasons.
Monitor these common health problems in the elderly and share information with your patients and their caregivers.
Adjusting to Daylight Savings Time
Adjusting to Daylight Savings Time (DST) can feel similar to having jet lag because it plays with our natural circadian rhythms. During the transition period, seniors may experience difficulty getting to sleep, or disruptions during it. This is problematic because sleep is an essential component of overall health, and sleep deprivation can lead to a variety of issues, like:
- Daytime fatigue
- Concentration loss
- Appetite changes
- Stomach upset
- Mood disturbances
More serious health problems can result from loss of sleep, too. A 2015 study found significantly increased risks of acute myocardial infarction in men taking ACE inhibitors in the first 3 days after the change to DST. Additionally, seasonal changes may prompt seniors to divert from their prescribed medication schedules, resulting in potentially dangerous over- or under-medication.
Even more troubling: All of these geriatric health problems increase seniors’ risk of falling. Learn more about chronic conditions and fall risk.
Help patients ward off falls and other health challenges related to the change to DST by teaching them and their caregivers sleep hygiene techniques, such as:
- Blocking out sound and/or light (as long as this doesn’t compromise safety)
- Practicing relaxation techniques before bedtime
- Avoiding television, screen time, alcohol, caffeine and food several hours before bedtime
- Using the bed for sleep only
- Staying on or re-establishing a bedtime routine
Managing Increased Activity Levels & Sun Exposure
Spring’s bright days and warmer temperatures lure seniors outside. Fresh air and sun improve mood, increase activity, encourage socializing, and help the body manufacture vitamin D. But increased sun exposure and activity levels also can lead to health issues for seniors, such as:
Mild to moderate dehydration is indicated by:
- Muscle cramping
- Reduced urine output
- Cool, dry skin
According to MedLine, sucking on ice cubes or sipping water or sports drinks containing electrolytes can ease dehydration.
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. In this condition, your patient may have stopped urinating or excretes small amounts of deep amber urine; be irritable, listless, dizzy, or confused; or have a rapid heartbeat, excessively dry skin, or sunken eyes. If you notice these symptoms, encourage them to get or help them receive medical care. Left ignored, severe dehydration can lead to fainting, delirium or shock.
Overexposure to the sun has potentially serious implications for seniors.
Sunburns are common and easily treated, but more serious skin damage can lead to skin cancers and cancers of the eyelid and eye. Basal and squamous cell cancers are more common and usually not life-threatening; melanoma, however, can be deadly. The Skin Cancer Foundation offers a visual guide to help identify potentially cancerous lesions. If you recognize any possible skin cancers on a patient, urge them to seek or assist them in getting medical attention. Share these skin protection tips with your patients.
The sun’s ultraviolet rays have been linked to cataracts, macular degeneration and keratitis (sunburn of the cornea). And too much sun also can weaken the immune system in people taking certain medications, such as tetracycline. Never store medications in direct sunlight.
Heat stress is more likely to affect older adults living with a chronic disease or taking medications or treatments that interfere with their ability to regulate body temperature. That puts them at risk for heat stress in the warmer months.
Heat exhaustion usually follows a period of dehydration, excessive exposure to heat, or both. Its symptoms may mimic other senior health issues, including nausea, heavy sweating, fast and shallow breathing, headache and dizziness.
Heat stroke occurs when the body has lost the ability to cool itself; internal temperatures can increase to 106 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. This serious condition is identified by intense headaches, skin that’s hot to the touch, dizziness, and nausea.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises getting immediate medical care for patients with the symptoms of either of these heat-related conditions.
Heat stress can be avoided by staying hydrated, resting frequently, taking cool showers and wearing lightweight clothing. Encourage patients to stay (or situate them) in a cool, shady spot and relocate as the sun moves. A full-spectrum UV sun-blocking agent with an SPF rating of at least 30 provides protection, as do loose-fitting clothes and long-sleeved shirts, hats and dark glasses with UVA and UVB protection.
The Spring bloom exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma. Sometimes confused with COPD or other respiratory issues, diagnosing allergies requires a combination of diagnostics, including lung function tests, bronchial hyperresponsiveness and atopy status and HRCT scans.
Spring allergies affect many people, regardless of age. But seniors’ immune systems can weaken with age, lowering their ability to fight off infections, and their thinning skin can make older adults more prone to contact dermatitis.
Allergic rhinitis affects from 12% percent of older adults, according to a 2017 paper. Symptoms are similar to the common cold: nasal congestion, sneezing and itching.
Some allergies result in cutaneous allergic conditions, the most common of which is pruritus (itching). Since pruritus can indicate such other health issues for seniors – such as blood, kidney, or liver diseases; drug reactions; or neurological and psychological responses – a careful work-up is critical. Both topical and systemic medications are used to treat skin allergies.
The symptoms, of course, are similar to those of more serious conditions. Thus, the most important factor for healthcare professionals is distinguishing allergic reactions from other common health problems in the elderly.
Caregivers and direct care practitioners can reduce the threat of allergens and insect bites and bee stings. Masks and closed windows reduce pollen exposure, for instance, while long sleeves and repellents help ward off bugs.
Responding to Severe Weather Threats
Thunderstorms, tornadoes, and flooding are climatological hallmarks of Spring. Talk to your patients and their families about emergency preparedness and urge them to develop a plan to ensure their safety during severe weather. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
- Pay attention to weather alerts. Consider getting a weather radio or installing a weather alert app on mobile devices.
- Be prepared for power outages. Have flameless candles and flashlights in ready reach. Recommend rechargeable batteries.
- Store several gallons of clean drinking water in case the water supply is tainted or unavailable.
- Watch for hazards such as slippery grass, downed power lines, flooding and leaky roofs.
- Stock shelf-stable food in the pantry; avoid refrigerated food, which may spoil during a prolonged power outage.
- Have a battery-operated or solar-powered radio and a landline or cell phone to communicate with family or emergency services.
- Keep batteries and mobile devices charged at all times. Think about getting a solar charger for renewable power during long outages.
Spring is a time of renewed life – and health issues for seniors. Help your patients and their family members reduce risk and stay healthy so they can fully enjoy this season of revitalization.