It’s a common misconception that dehydration is easy to detect and easy to prevent. Many assume the body has a foolproof early warning system that alerts us when we need to increase our fluid intake—thirst. While this is the primary mechanism to prevent dehydration, it’s not the fail-safe people think it is. Truth be told, dehydration has a way of sneaking up on us. It’s not uncommon for those with excessive fluid loss to feel fine right up to the point where they pass out. This can happen to people of any age and fitness level, but the elderly, who already have lower body water levels than younger adults, can become dehydrated after just a few hours without drinking. And for seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, dehydration is a constant concern.
If you’re caring for a loved one with a mental impairment, knowing the causes and signs of dehydration as well as strategies to prevent this condition will improve the quality of life for both you and your dependent.
Why Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients Are at Particular Risk
Staying properly hydrated is an ongoing, repetitive process of taking in fluids several times a day. Although the common rule of thumb to drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily is open to debate, most medical institutions recommend similar amounts. For healthy adults, this means drinking at least once an hour, something most people do without thinking. Elderly Alzheimer’s patients, on the other hand, face several factors that can prevent this from happening. Some of the most common include:
An Inability to Recognize the Sensation of Thirst
Alzheimer’s eventually affects every part of the brain, and the one that recognizes the sensation of thirst is no exception. An older adult in this situation may experience a sensation of discomfort, but might not be able to determine the cause.
Even if seniors with Alzheimer’s experience and understand the sensation of thirst, memory loss may cause seniors to forget where they put their glass of water, or even that they poured it. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to discover several full cups scattered about the home.
In addition to affecting the brain’s ability to recognize thirst, Alzheimer’s can also diminish its ability to control mouth and throat muscles, making swallowing difficult. Seniors may be reluctant to drink if they fear choking.
Some drugs commonly prescribed to seniors have the side effect of increasing urination, which increases the need to take in more fluids to compensate for those being expelled.
Many seniors with Alzheimer’s have additional physical conditions that limit their mobility. Those who use a wheelchair or walker may not be able to easily access a cupboard, refrigerator, or sink.
Fear of Incontinence
Decreased bladder control can keep many seniors, even those without dementia, from drinking as much as they should. Ironically, dehydration causes salts and proteins to build up in the urine, exasperating incontinence.
Five Strategies to Prevent Dehydration
Although it can be challenging to keep an elderly loved one with Alzheimer’s hydrated, here are five strategies that may prove effective:
- Prompt them to drink often – There’s nothing wrong with asking your loved one to take a sip or two of water every half-hour. Frequent small drinks will eliminate the need to take larger drinks. This can be especially helpful for seniors who have difficulty swallowing and may view finishing an entire glass of water with trepidation or resentment.
- Eliminate as many challenges as possible – Seniors with arthritis, muscle weakness, or Parkinson’s may find it difficult to grip a cup or bring a full glass to their lips without spillage, making them reluctant to drink. Smaller, no-spill cups can improve confidence. One-way straws can also help. There are many models designed with adults in mind, with no cartoon characters or other markings that would label it a “sippy” cup.
- Provide their favorites – Although water is always a good choice for hydration, it’s not the only one. Those with Alzheimer’s often prefer more flavorful options, especially sweet ones. Sports drinks and Pedialyte not only provide taste, but also salts, minerals, and electrolytes. Watered-down fruit juices are another possible alternative, as well as flavored water.
- Don’t forget foods high in water content – 20 percent of an average adult’s fluid intake comes from foods. Watermelon, cucumbers, celery, berries, and yogurt are all very hydrating, as are grapefruits and even soft cheeses.
- Recognize the early signs of dehydration – The sooner you realize your loved one may be dehydrated, the sooner you can take action. Early signs include chapped lips, constipation, decreased urine output, and dry skin. One tried-and-true method of determining whether or not someone is dehydrated is the turgor test. Gently pinch the skin on the back of the hand between your thumb and forefinger. If the skin remains tented for more than a few seconds, it’s an indication of dehydration.
Get a Modern-Day House Call for Treatment
Caring for a senior with Alzheimer’s is always challenging. If you suspect your loved one is suffering from severe dehydration or another common ailment such as the flu or a urinary tract infection (UTI), getting them to a doctor’s office or urgent care facility can be stressful for everyone. At DispatchHealth, we think there’s a better way. Why not have your loved one treated where he or she is most comfortable—at home? Our team will arrive in just a few hours after contact and can diagnose and treat nearly everything an emergency room can.
For severe dehydration specifically, our medical team can run electrolyte tests, discuss and evaluate possible causes, administer electrolyte drinks or IV fluids if needed, and ensure you’re on the way to recovery, all from the comfort of your home. And since they are able to spend an average of 45 minutes with each patient, you’ll have plenty of time to get all of your questions answered. Better yet, DispatchHealth accepts Medicare as well as most private insurance, making it an affordable option for seniors facing dehydration and other acute medical problems.