Seniors may need extra care to avoid dehydration

The more I hear about dehydration causing all kinds of problems for seniors, I started to wonder: Do older adults need more water? I learned a lot researching this topic, which I will share with you below. In short, the experts say that we older adults can have a harder time holding onto the water we take in, are less sensitive to our bodies’ thirst signals, and additional health issues in seniors all may warrant extra reminders to take in more fluids throughout the day.

Hydration views change over time

The idea for this post came up as I was preparing to go into the garden this morning. I couldn’t help but think how this routine has changed since we retired and I first started gardening. Today I had my sunhat, sunglasses, garden bench, sweat band, gloves, scissors, long-sleeved shirt, produce basket, bottle of water and a mental note to not stay outside too long.

Twenty years ago I grabbed the basket and scissors and came back to the house when basket was full, which might have been several hours later. As I picked my fruit, vegetables and herbs, I also snipped dead leaves and branches from plants that required it and culled any overripe fruits so the plants would continue to produce. Gardening seemed more fun back in the day when we didn’t feel the need to prepare ourselves for “war” against the elements.

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember learning that water is vital to life, but we never thought of “hydration” when leaving the house in the morning. We played with friends until it was time to go home and never thought about water. There were water fountains in the parks if we needed it, and everyone’s house had a hose in the yard. So, thirst was not an issue for long and hydration was never mentioned. It was not an issue when our own children came along. The baby books advised  how much fluid your baby needed to consume and they seemed to thrive on that amount. As they got older they would quench their thirst as needed, the same as we had.

We did not join the hydration movement until relatively recently. As more information surfaced about how important hydration is for senior citizens, the more we became believers and formed a new habit of buying bottled water and keeping a supply on hand. Aging has a way of forcing us to adopt new habits in order to continue doing those things we have enjoyed and taken for granted for so many years.

We did have faucet water filters in our kitchen for many years prior to adding the bottled water to our routine. The faucet filters, however, did not cause us to drink more water. It took realizing the potentially devastating negative effects of dehydration on the elderly that encouraged us to increase our water intake.

I had a dear friend who lived to be 100, who at one time in her 90s was thought to be suffering from dementia. It turned out she was dehydrated and the dehydration was affecting her brain function. Once she was admitted to the hospital and received intravenous fluids, her tack-sharp mind came back to her.

One way we have incorporated more water into our daily routine is to sip fruit-infused water throughout the day. My favorite recipe involves making lemon and lime ice cubes by juicing them in my citrus juicer and then freezing the juices in ice cube trays. A handful of strawberries and a couple of lemon juice cubes can really perk up an otherwise boring glass of water. Chunks of fruit and juice cubes are easy additions that can encourage more water intake, especially during these hot summer months, and all year round.

Aging bodies susceptible to dehydration

While sources differ about whether eight glasses of water per day is necessary for most people, it is nevertheless important for us seniors to stay hydrated.

According to the Mayo Clinic website and other medically-oriented resources, older adults should pay attention to several circumstances concerning their fluid intake. Water plays many crucial roles in maintaining an aging body, including skin and joint lubrication, temperature regulation, nutrient transport, and removal of waste from the body. It turns out that as we reach senior status, the part of our brain that signals thirst can become less sensitive to our actual water needs. In some cases, we may not feel thirsty until we are already dehydrated.

Diabetes and other age-related health concerns can cause older adults to become dehydrated. The increased urination caused by diabetes can lead to a loss of water volume in the senior body, which already has lower reserve of water due to aging.

It is also important to ask your doctor if any prescribed medications should be considered in contributing to dehydration and how to balance fluid intake with the benefits of the medication.

Always take into account your own personal lifestyle, age, medications, and food intake (many fruits and vegetables are high in water content) as well when you discuss your personal fluid intake with your doctor.

Mobility issues can also be a concern. The aches and pains of simply moving around can inhibit older adults from getting up and getting a drink; subsequently more drinking leads to more frequent bathroom trips.

Other concerns include simply forgetting to drink water and other fluids throughout the day (especially in those with dementia). Heat and humidity compound these issues, since we need extra fluid to replace what we lose through sweating.

Thirst, dark-colored urine, dry mouth, muscle cramps, palpitations and lightheadedness can all be symptoms of dehydration. As with my dear friend I mentioned earlier, confusion and forgetfulness can also occur in dehydration.

Of course, it is also possible to drink too much water. Most of the experts seem to encourage seniors to spread out their fluid intake throughout the day. Gulping down large quantities of water all at once can cause its own set of (potentially serious) problems. So check with your doctor about your particular fluid needs and you might come up with a new daily routine as well.

A couple of helpful articles for further reading include Dr. Leslie Kernisan’s Q&A on How to Prevent, Detect, & Treat Dehydration in Aging Adults and this Mayo Clinic article How much should you drink every day?

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