Preventing dehydration in older adults

Person pouring water into a glass from a pitcher.

By the time a person is thirsty, they’re probably already dehydrated. And dehydration in older adults can happen even more quickly than in younger people.

It’s important to know the dangers and causes of dehydration as well as the signs, symptoms, treatment and prevention options.

Dangers of dehydration

When an older adult becomes dehydrated, they may experience impaired cognition and acute confusion. It may appear to others that they have sudden onset dementia, when in fact they are dehydrated.

Dehydration may lead to a person falling and needing to go to the emergency room. Other health risks include constipation and urinary tract infection. These health changes may increase a person’s chance of premature death.

Causes of dehydration

There are several reasons why dehydration happens, and some may be surprising.

“Your amount of body water decreases by about 15%, or 6 liters, between the ages of 20 and 80, so the body is more prone to dehydration from losing only a small amount of water,” says Karis Gust, a nursing and clinical services consultant for the Good Samaritan Society.

It’s common for older people to have two or more long-term health conditions and take multiple drugs to treat them.

“This can overstress the normal age-related changes in a person’s water and sodium balance, increasing the risk of dehydration,” Karis states.

As we age, our kidney functions change, making dehydration more prevalent. The use of laxatives or diuretics can also contribute to dehydration.

Oftentimes, seniors have a diminished thirst sensation. They also may be dealing with reduced swallowing capacity, decreased mobility, comprehension disorders or incontinence.

All of these issues can lead to reduced fluid consumption resulting in dehydration.

Symptoms of dehydration

The common signs of dehydration include:

  • Urine that looks like apple juice
  • Skin that stays standing up in a tent shape when lightly pinched and pulled up
  • Dry skin
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Rapid pulse or breathing

If you feel thirsty, this is usually the last sign of dehydration.

Treatment for dehydration

When a person isn’t able to get the recommended amount of fluid, it can be administered via a catheter or by hypodermoclysis.

“Hypodermoclysis allows a person to receive fluids via injection under the skin,” says Karis. “In more specific and severe cases, fluids can be administered intravenously.”

Tips for staying hydrated

Prevention is key when it comes to staying hydrated.

“Most liquids, except for coffee and alcohol, are hydrating,” Karis states. “But try to avoid sports drinks and sodas as these refined sugars have negative effects. If you like tea, find a caffeine-free flavor you can enjoy without adding sugar.”

Follow these tips:

  • Drink at least 7 cups of liquids every 24 hours.
  • Invest in a reusable water bottle and carry it with you.
  • Keep a glass of water by your bed at night.
  • Use a water bottle or cup that contains a set amount of fluid and keep track of how many times you drink it.
  • Add lemon, lime, orange, cucumber and/or mint to infuse water with flavor or try sparkling water.

“Make it a habit to down a full glass of water before eating,” Karis adds. “Studies suggest that people who drink a glass of water before a meal eat fewer calories, perhaps because they were confusing their thirst with hunger.”

It’s always important to know when you need more hydration. The more a person sweats, the more water they need. Those who exercise should sip water every 20 minutes.

Tips for caregivers

Caregivers need to continuously be aware of the risk factors and signs of dehydration in older adults – especially during periods of very warm weather and during illness.

  • Ensure your loved one drinks sufficient fluids – at least 7 cups (1.7 liters) every 24 hours.
  • Always make healthy drinks and water easily available.
  • Remind and encourage your loved one to drink fluids.
  • Do not encourage your loved one to consume large amounts of fluid at once, but rather small amounts throughout the day.

Benefits of staying hydrated

As a person consumes more liquids throughout the day, they might start to notice how much better they feel.

Increased hydration can lead to:

  • Better digestion
  • Healthier skin
  • Improved brain performance
  • Improved cardio and kidney function
  • More energy

Read more health and well-being resources.

Related resources

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