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The importance of hydration in elderly people

Staying hydrated is essential for elderly people for a number of different health and wellbeing reasons.

August 23, 2023

Elderly woman holding a glass of water

Dehydration can be dangerous at any age, but older people can have an elevated risk of health complications as a result. It can also be more common for those in later life to experience dehydration in the first place.

In this article, we look at why proper hydration is important in the elderly, the signs of dehydration for loved ones to watch out for and how to prevent it from happening at all.

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Why good hydration is important

Elderly couple keeping themselves hydrated after baking

The body needs a certain level of water in order to function properly. The liquid we drink and get from food helps to lubricate joints, helps with digestion, keeps the skin healthy, helps regulate body temperature, helps prevent infections, helps nutrients and oxygen get to where they are needed in the body and keeps organs working as they should. Hydration levels can also have a big impact on the quality of sleep, mood and even brain function.

If the body loses more fluid than it takes in, the person becomes dehydrated and the body can’t work as it should. Being dehydrated regularly or for long periods can sometimes cause significant health problems, affect mental function and result in organ damage.

Dehydration can also cause dizziness and affect someone’s balance, which increases the risk of having a fall.

Can an elderly person die from dehydration?

If an elderly person becomes severely dehydrated and steps are not taken quickly to increase their fluid levels, it can result in serious health conditions and sometimes even death.

Whilst mild dehydration is common in the elderly and usually straightforward to recover from, severe dehydration needs immediate medical intervention.

Why are elderly people more prone to dehydration?

There are several reasons why older adults can be more at risk of becoming dehydrated than people at other stages of life. The dehydration risk factors in the elderly include:

Less fluid in the body to start with

The amount of fluid held in the body naturally starts to decrease with age, meaning that dehydration can occur more quickly than in younger adults, as there are fewer reserves stored for the body to draw on.

Feeling less thirsty

The ‘thirst response’ that lets someone know that they need to drink fluids can often become weaker with age. Without their body letting them know that they are thirsty, it can be more difficult to remember to drink regularly.

Existing health conditions and current medications

Along with changes to the body that often happen with age, such as reduced kidney function that means more fluid can be lost through going to the loo, existing health conditions or medications being taken can sometimes also lead to more water from the body being lost than otherwise would be. Illness that includes vomiting or diarrhoea can also cause dehydration.

Dementia symptoms

Older people who are experiencing some signs of dementia, especially short-term memory loss, can often forget to drink as regularly as is needed to stay properly hydrated.

Being exposed to heat or humidity

Older people’s bodies are not always able to regulate their own temperature well, which can mean that exposure to high temperatures can result in dehydration or even heatstroke.

Mobility issues

If an older person is struggling to get around their home, it makes it more challenging for them to get water or make other drinks on their own. If they also struggle to get to the bathroom on their own quickly then this could be a reason they don’t want to increase the amount they are drinking.

Signs of dehydration in elderly people

Elderly woman not feeling well

The symptoms and signs of dehydration in elderly people can sometimes be subtle and can easily be written off as something else or as not being serious. We’ve split the signs of dehydration into two groups of symptoms, for mild or moderate dehydration and for severe dehydration.

Signs of mild or moderate dehydration in the elderly

Mild or moderate dehydration still needs to be taken seriously and it’s important to give fluids as quickly as possible to someone who is showing any of these symptoms:

  • A dry mouth
  • Headache
  • A decrease in urination or urine that is darker in colour than usual
  • Feeling very tired or fatigued
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Eyes looking sunken
  • Muscle cramps
  • Constipation
  • Struggling to concentrate

Signs of severe dehydration in the elderly

Severe dehydration can be very serious and even life-threatening, so needs urgent medical attention. Signs of this include:

  • Feeling very confused or disoriented
  • Having problems with normal movements or walking
  • A rapid heart rate
  • Fainting or losing consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea that lasts for longer than 24 hours.

Treating dehydration in the elderly

Mild or moderate dehydration can usually be treated by simply replacing lost fluids through drinking water or juices and eating things like broth or soup that is very high in water content.

If there has been diarrhoea or vomiting, they may also benefit from replacing lost electrolytes (salts and minerals), which can be found in drinks such as milk, some fruit juices, smoothies or some sports drinks. Sachets of electrolyte replacement to be mixed with water can also be bought from pharmacies.

How to prevent dehydration in elderly people

Tips to prevent dehydration in the elderly include:

  • Regular water drinking throughout the day, even when not feeling thirsty
  • Eating foods with a high water content, such as cucumber, melon, soups or broths
  • Drink even more on warmer days or when exercising
  • Drink more fluids than normal if ill
  • Keep drinks in an easily accessible place
  • Tea and coffee can count towards the daily fluids needed, especially if drinking mainly decaffeinated versions. This is because caffeine can have a slight diuretic effect, where the urine output is increased.

Supporting good hydration in older adults

There are several ways that loved ones can assist older adults in staying better hydrated. We’ve included some tips below:

  • It can be a good idea to set hourly reminder alarms if no one is there in person to remind the older adult to drink. A home assistant device or smartphone is great for this
  • Ensure that they are eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, many of which have high water content. Other foods that are good for hydration include yogurt and jelly, which may be easier to eat for some older people
  • Add a little freshly squeezed lime, lemon or orange juice to plain water might make it more palatable if the older person doesn’t like drinking plain water. Adding cordial or squash to drinks can also help with this
  • If the older adult takes regular tablets with water, see if they can have a full drink each time they take the medication rather than just a couple of swallows
  • It is also important to eat a balanced diet and advance meal prepping for seniors can encourage healthy eating and good hydration
  • Consider a home care monitoring system, which can track activity in the kitchen non-intrusively (no cameras) so that you are alerted if your older loved one decreases the number of times they boil the kettle or open the fridge door.

It’s very natural to be concerned about your elderly loved one staying properly hydrated and safe when you’re not there with them. A personal alarm system can provide peace of mind for them and for you that if something does happen, or if they have an accident or fall ill suddenly, help can always be reached.

With lots of different alarm models and features available, it’s important to choose one that fits with lifestyle and needs. Our team can help make sure you choose the right product for your situation. Call us on 0800 085 7371 for specialist advice.

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

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Ways to support independent living

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

Download brochure

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