Imagine stopping by to visit your elderly mom at her home. She complains of
a headache and tiredness, and sometimes, she says, she has muscle cramps.
These may seem like standard signs of fatigue among the elderly. But what
neither of you may realize is that all of these conditions could be related
to dehydration, which is
both common and severe in older adults.
Cause and Effects
People of any age become dehydrated when more fluid leaves their body than
is replaced. Sweating, urinating, even making saliva pulls fluid from the
body. Illnesses like the flu that induce diarrhea or vomiting can also lead
to dehydration, and it can be a side effect of some medications.
Without enough fluid, the body doesn’t function as it should. Mild to
moderate dehydration can present
Dry or sticky mouth
Dark yellow urine
Dry, cool skin
If left untreated, severe dehydration can lead to:
Not urinating or producing very dark yellow urine
Dehydrated skin with little elasticity
Rapid heartbeat or breathing
lethargy, confusion or irritability
Why the Elderly Are at Risk
Your mom’s dehydration could also be triggered by the fact that older
people typically have less water in their bodies. Being over the age of 85
and a female were cited as risk factors in dehydration in
one Medscape study. To further complicate things, seniors may not have a clear sense of when
they are thirsty. And ff they have a medical condition (like Type 2
diabetes) or take certain medications, the body can lose even more fluid
through frequent urination.
Dehydration in seniors can also be caused by a lack of mobility—they simply
have trouble getting up to get a drink or may not be able to open a
container or carry a drink without spilling. Incontinence and the
embarrassment it can cause, or the inability to walk to the bathroom, may
lead an elderly person to drink less. Dementia can also play a
role—sufferers may lose track of if they’ve had anything to drink.
The home environment can play a role, too. Heated air in cold weather can
dry the elderly, or profuse sweating during warm summer months can also
The problem is widespread.
In one study of nursing home residents,
nearly all were inadequately hydrated. In this study, inadequate
supervision and missed opportunities by staff assistants were cited as
causes contributing to dehydration.
Coping with Dehydration
While changes in a person’s health should always be discussed with a
healthcare provider, the good news is that putting more fluids back into
everyday consumption might ease some of the symptoms of dehydration.
Water is the first remedy that comes to mind, but other liquids can work
for rehydration, including flavored water, juice, tea, lemonade, sports
drinks or coffee. Of course, people trying to avoid excess sugar may limit
the intake of non-diet beverages. If your parent lives alone, having a
companion or professional caregiver
on hand to offer, pour and serve frequent drinks can be helpful.
You or a professional caregiver can devise a care plan to help make
drinking enough fluids a daily habit for your loved one. A glass of water
set on the table at mealtimes or by the bedside can serve as a helpful
nudge. Encourage your mom or dad to drink more when taking medications (as
long as the specific medication allows it). Pairing fluids with medications
helps to provide a daily timetable for hydration. Water by the sink where
teeth are brushed is another good reminder.
Your professional homecare provider may offer other tips for ensuring good
hydration. Some older people prefer using a small container for water,
since a larger serving might be more difficult to handle or may seem
overwhelming. Hot drinks may be especially appealing to elderly people. A
professional caregiver can be much-needed help in heating water and serving
tea or coffee. You might look for cups with a lid or straw for your parent
if drinking from an open glass is difficult.
Water, Water Everywhere
Hydration doesn’t just come in liquid form. Many foods have a high water
content. Eating them is another way to add fluids to the diet.
Seniors may want to include soup, stew or broth in meals. Grapes,
watermelon, grapefruit, honeydew, strawberries or smoothies are
as are vegetables like broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce and celery. Even
hamburger and chicken
contain plenty of water. It’s a good idea for you or a professional
caregiver to have a sense of what your mom or dad is eating every day if
you’re concerned about dehydration.
If certain beverages lose their appeal for your loved one, be prepared to
make substitutions. Trying a new fruit juice or herbal tea, for instance,
or adding a squeeze of lemon to tap water might pique renewed interest.
Naturally, a well-hydrated person will need to use the bathroom more often.
If getting around is not easy for your parent, a professional caregiver can
help. That person can also watch for conditions like colds, sore throats or
upset stomach that could cause your parent to cut back on drinking.
Dehydration is just one of things a professional caregiver is trained to
spot. For more on home care services, click here.