What to know about extreme heat and Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias

Extremely hot conditions can increase stress, agitation and confusion in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and the Alzheimer’s Association has safety tips for caregivers.

People living with Alzheimer’s and dementia may not be able to understand what is happening to them, regulate their emotions, communicate what they’re experiencing or take the same precautions as people with full cognitive function.

“So we’re going to need to anticipate their needs and respond to them appropriately,” said Katie McDonough, community executive director of the southeastern Virginia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“When you have Alzheimer’s or dementia, it’s very challenging, particularly in the middle or later stages, for you to communicate about your stress,” McDonough said.

Warning signs that the heat is adversely affecting someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can include them pacing back and forth in the house; they may be calling out or yelling more; their frustration level may increase.

Make a plan.

Family and friends should plan to regularly check in on people during extreme weather; make sure they’re wearing loose, light clothing; and prepare alternate arrangements if needed.

“Is there a room in the house that perhaps could have a window unit, where that individual could spend most of their time?” McDonough said. “Is there a neighbor that they could stay with temporarily or a family member? Could they potentially access some respite services in a local facility?”

Evening hours are important.

Because air conditioning systems can only adjust temperatures by about 20 degrees during extreme weather, McDonough said caregivers might consider installing a window unit in the bedroom to help keep the sleeping environment cooler. That can help prevent repeated bouts of sleeplessness in the middle of the night because of discomfort.

Increased risk for wandering.

“We often see folks, particularly with heat-related stress, wander out of the home. Because if you’re uncomfortable physically, you’re going to leave that space,” McDonough said.

Consider rescheduling appointments.

McDonough said if at all possible, people living with Alzheimer’s dementia should avoid spending time or even going outside when there’s extreme heat.

Perhaps a doctor’s appointment could be moved to a different day, or a shopping trip can be postponed — whatever’s necessary to help keep folks at home in a cool environment or in some other public spaces where it’s comfortably cool.

Choose the right place to relocate.

“If you do need to go to a public space, we always recommend places that don’t have too much activity going on. We want a place that doesn’t overstimulate someone living with dementia, particularly if they’re prone to being overstimulated because that can become confusing for a lot of folks,” McDonough said. “Think about a quiet space, (such as) a library, a quiet coffee shop or something like that.”

The importance of staying hydrated.

“We need to remember that when they’re hot, they’re not going to remember necessarily to drink. They’re not going to be able to process, ‘I should be drinking more water because I’m sweating. I should be drinking more water because my body temperature has risen,'” McDonough said. “We need to make sure that they always have water accessible to them; and that they’re being cued and given that and encouraged on a regular basis with someone there to hydrate themselves.”

Ask for help if needed.

The Alzheimer’s Association can put people in touch with local resources that may offer financial assistance for cooling. There are grants available to give access to window units and things like that.

“If at any moment you question the safety of your loved one, if you have questions about making specific plans in your area, you want to know more about resources or even just to brainstorm some ideas with someone who is an expert on the disease; we want to make sure that everyone knows they can reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 help line,” McDonough said.

The 24/7 help line can be reached at 800-272-3900. Additional advice from the Alzheimer’s Association can be found on its website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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