The changing seasons affect all of us, but they have an especially profound impact on the elderly. Seniors currently account for 13% of the US population, and their numbers are on the rise, so addressing the healthcare needs of this group is becoming increasingly important. Older people respond differently to temperature variations than their younger counterparts. If you're wondering how seasonal climate change can affect you or your loved one, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Increased Sensitivity to Heat and Cold
Seniors often have difficulty regulating body temperature. This is a normal part of the aging process, but certain health conditions may make the problem worse. For instance, diabetes, which affects 12.2 million Americans over age 60, can interfere with circulation, making it harder to keep warm. Additionally, the approximately 80% of seniors who have at least one chronic condition may be more sensitive to weather extremes, especially heat, because of the medications they take.
Higher Susceptibility to Illness
Temperature extremes can have a negative impact on health, especially since people's immune systems tend to weaken as they age. In the winter, seniors are more susceptible to colds and flu than younger people. Getting pneumonia and flu vaccines can prevent older people from developing these potentially serious ailments. During intense heat and cold, seniors should:
- Keep their homes as comfortable as possible.
- Avoid too much exertion.
- Eat well and drink plenty of water.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption or avoid them altogether.
- Talk to their doctor about weather-related health risks and how OTC medications can interact with prescriptions.
Especially for seniors, the warmer weather of spring and summer comes with an increased risk of contracting diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes. To protect against illnesses such as West Nile Virus, seniors (and others) should use an insect repellent containing DEET. While this doesn't kill disease-carrying insects, it does make it harder for them to detect the human scent, keeping bug bites to a minimum.
Difficulties in Managing Chronic Conditions
The temperature fluctuations that accompany the changing seasons may exacerbate any pre-existing conditions an older person has. According to geriatrician Dr. David Abbot, “Arthritic problems worsen, and there is a much higher injury rate from falling (during freezing weather)." As the mercury rises, poor air quality, due to allergens and pollution, can aggravate conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Extreme heat and cold are also associated with an increased heart attack risk.
Daylight patterns affect a person's circadian rhythm, or internal clock. Patients with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia often experience what is known as Sundowners Syndrome, or increased levels of confusion and agitation at dusk. While this condition can be especially problematic in the winter because of limited sunlight, older people may also have difficulty adjusting to daylight savings time when spring arrives. Homecare providers recommend sticking to a regular schedule to help seniors with dementia adjust to changes in daylight hours. Caregivers can take advantage of spring and summer weather to get older people involved in outdoor activities, such as walking or gardening. Exercise not only improves health and well-being but can also slow the decline in cognitive functioning that is characteristic of dementia.
Seniors who live alone or have limited mobility or other disabilities may face additional challenges in adapting to seasonal changes and accessing the services they need. A homecare provider, like Bluebird Homecare, can help you or your older loved one make the most of each season by providing assistance and support, optimizing independence, dignity, and peace of mind.