Why Dehydration in Seniors is a Serious Health Risk

Seniors who live in assisted living hydrate better than if they are living at home on their own.
Posted by The Ivy

Resident getting handed a glass of water

After a day in the sun, nothing sounds better than an ice-cold glass of water — unless you’re a senior. As you age, your body’s sense of thirst diminishes. So even after a few hours gardening in the heat of the summer, an older adult might not realize that their body needs to be replenished with water. Dehydration in seniors is incredibly common, and the consequences can become life-threatening.


Why Seniors Are at Risk for Dehydration

Anyone may become dehydrated, but older adults are at greater risk for a few reasons:

  • Less sensitivity to the feeling of being thirsty, which leads to inadequate water intake
  • Smaller fluid reserve, which lowers the body’s ability to regulate fluid balance
  • Decreased kidney function, which makes it harder for the body to conserve water
  • More medications with side effects that cause increased urination, which flushes water from the body
  • Increased mobility problems, which limits their ability to obtain water for themselves

Other common causes for dehydration in seniors include diarrhea, excessive sweating, loss of blood, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and kidney disease.

Among older adults, seniors who live at home on their own are more likely to become dehydrated.

“People who live in assisted living hydrate better than those who live at home because they live in a highly engaged environment,” says Marty Sawyer, a nurse and the Resident Care Director at The Ivy at Ellington.

If your loved one lives at home alone, mobility problems may limit their ability to obtain water for themselves or they may forget to drink the recommended water intake because they’re not thirsty. In an assisted living community, nurses monitor residents’ weight and assess them if their health condition changes.

“Plus, three healthy meals a day along with snacks are guaranteed,” Sawyer says. Residents are drinking water not only at mealtimes but also in between meals.


Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration in Seniors

It can be hard to recognize dehydration. If you’re caring for an aging loved one at home, here are the early signs of dehydration you should watch for:

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Less frequent urination
  • Dark or deep yellow urine
  • Cramping in limbs
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Many of these earliest signs — dry mouth, fatigue, dizziness — could be easily attributed to other health conditions or medications. And because older adults experience a reduction in thirst sense, they’re already dehydrated by the time they feel thirsty.

If dehydration isn’t treated during the mild to moderate phase, the consequences to a senior’s health can be significant.

“The most dangerous side effects I’ve seen from dehydration are confusion and difficulty walking,” Sawyer says. “Both put the senior’s safety in jeopardy and often lead to falls and possible hospital stays.”

Dehydration can lead to other serious complications, including:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Urinary and kidney problems, such as urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and even kidney failure
  • Severe cramping and muscle contractions
  • Rapid but weak pulse
  • Loss of consciousness

Severe dehydration requires immediate medical treatment. If you see any signs or even just suspect it, call your loved one’s doctor.

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Tips for Getting Seniors to Increase Their Fluid Intake

To help make sure your loved one doesn’t suffer from dehydration, encourage them to not wait until they’re thirsty to start drinking water.

“However, not everyone likes water,” Sawyer says. “Fluids at different temperatures, such as broth, smoothies, milkshakes, sports drinks, or even popsicles or Jell-O will increase fluid intake. Offering foods high in water during meals and snacks is another way to increase hydration.

Vegetables high in water include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Celery
  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Asparagus
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower

Fruits that are high in water include:

  • Grapefruit
  • Watermelon
  • Strawberries
  • Plums
  • Cantaloupe
  • Honeydew melons
  • Lemons
  • Nectarines
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Blackberries
  • Pineapple

When your loved one is well-hydrated, they are less likely to fall, they have a reduced risk of urinary tract infections, and they experience less constipation.

If your loved one struggles with staying hydrated, it might be a sign to start exploring assisted living options.

“There are many ways we get seniors to increase their intake of fluids in assisted living,” Sawyer says. “One way we encourage water consumption is to offer it after every activity. By having the water readily available it is more likely to be consumed. With just a little bit of support, the residents feel better.”

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Topics: Family Resources, About The Ivy at Ellington