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Dangers of Dehydration in Seniors: What Caregivers Need to Know

Written by Casey Kelly-Barton
 about the author
4 minute readLast updated April 3, 2023

It’s a sunny 80-degree day, and your loved one is out for her usual walk with her dog. Did you notice if she took her water bottle with her? Working out and staying active are essential for many older adults to maintain their health and wellness. However, these activities can lead to dehydration, which can negatively impact their well-being.

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Why older people are more prone to dehydration

One of the biggest health risks to seniors can be prevented by the most basic of resources – water. Dehydration can cause a life-threatening cascade of problems over a few hours or days, and many seniors get dehydrated without realizing it. Some aren’t even able to articulate that they’re thirsty. That’s why it’s important for caregivers and family members to learn about this common but preventable problem.
Geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, M.D., writes in The Gift of Caring that adults between ages 85 and 99 are admitted to the hospital because of dehydration six times more often than other adults. But you don’t have to be in your eighties to be at risk. As we age, we lose muscle mass, which is the body’s main location for storing water. This means older adults get dehydrated faster than younger adults of similar size.
Some medications and undiagnosed infection contribute to dehydration as well. Sometimes people with urinary incontinence cut back on fluids to avoid the hassle of undergarment changes, especially during outings or when company is present. Other factors can include dementia, mobility issues, and the inability to request a drink.

Possible complications of untreated dehydration

Dehydration can cause dizziness, delirium, and low blood pressure, all of which can lead to falls and injury. In cases of advanced dehydration, the Mayo Clinic lists heat injury, hypovolemic shock, seizures, kidney failure, brain swelling, and coma as potential complications. Left undiagnosed and untreated, dehydration can be fatal.

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Know the signs of dehydration

The Illinois Council on Long Term Carerecommends that you consider dehydration as an underlying cause any time there’s a rapid change in your loved one’s mental state or awareness.
Signs of advanced dehydration, which is a medical emergency, may include:
  • A sunken look to the eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Skin that doesn’t recover its normal appearance after you pinch a small section
Medical symptoms of severe dehydration include:
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Lower than normal blood pressure
  • Decreased urine output
  • Fever

Steps to keeping a senior hydrated

Reminding your parent to drink a glass of water, juice, or milk every couple of hours may be enough to keep them fully hydrated. If your loved one is deliberately cutting down on fluids to reduce trips to the bathroom, try offering foods with a higher water content. Eckstrom recommends soups, yogurt, and produce as hydrating choices. Addressing underlying concerns like overactive bladder and incontinence may also encourage them to increase their fluid intake.
If you’re curious about how much water your parent is drinking, make a chart. This can also establish a benchmark to share with health care providers if your mom or dad has a marked decrease or increase in fluid intake later on.

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What to do if you suspect dehydration

Call your loved one’s doctor if you think your loved one is even mildly dehydrated. This is different from the advice for younger adults, who can often recover on their own with rest and fluids. If your loved one exhibits any of the signs of serious dehydration listed above, seek emergency medical care.
Dehydration in seniors can be serious, but prevention is usually simple. Take the time to check your loved one for signs of dehydration daily, offer lots of tempting non-alcoholic drinks and foods with high water content, and seek help if you suspect a problem.


Meet the Author
Casey Kelly-Barton

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