Caring for Hospice Patients During Times of Extreme Heat

As June came to an end, much of the United States was stuck in an oppressive heat wave. While uncomfortable for many, this can be quite dangerous for seniors and the physically or medically fragile, such as hospice patients; their bodies are less able to regulate their temperatures and cool themselves. When our bodies heat rapidly or when we lose fluids and salt due to perspiration or dehydration, people can experience heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. In some cases, hyperthermia (absorbing more heat than our bodies can handle) is fatal.

Adding to these concerns are that certain chronic illnesses and medications increase an older person’s risk of heat stroke, which is dangerous in itself and puts an extra physical burden on an already compromised system.

Warning signs of heat-related illnesses
Heat exhaustion stems from dehydration due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Symptoms include muscle cramps, headache, dizziness, fatigue and confusion.

Heat stroke is a very serious condition, as the body physically overheats and cannot regulate or bring down its own temperature. The distinguishing sign of heat stroke is a body temperature of 104° or higher. The patient may also experience a distorted mental state, flushed skin, racing heartbeat, nausea, vomiting and rapid breathing.

Hospice care during heat waves
Of course, the effects of extreme heat on hospice patients are of great concern to hospice caregivers. For those who are going out into the field to provide care, or for family members who are caring for loved ones in the home, here are some ways to help the patient stay safe and comfortable during a heat wave. These are simple precautions that anyone can easily implement to keep the person comfortable and help moderate body temperature when temperatures outside are soaring.

  • Stay indoors with air conditioning during the hottest part of the day (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). Better to enjoy the view from the comfort and safety of an air-conditioned residence on hot, muggy days.
  • Hydration is critical. Offer cool drinks such as water, lemonade and herbal iced tea, ice chips or ice pops often to keep the patient cool and refreshed (avoid caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate the body). Expressing thirst by the patient is not a firm criterion for drinking, as our bodies lose moisture on very hot days, even when we are not sweating heavily.
  • Offer cool snacks such as lightly frozen grapes, berries and peas, ice cream, sorbet, etc. if the appetite is there. Serve light, cold meals over hot, heavy dishes.
  • If time outdoors is desired, stay in the shade whenever possible and have the patient wear a hat, sunglasses and light-colored, cotton clothing for protection. Use sunscreen (SPF 50) to protect fragile skin.
  • Dress the patient in lightweight layers indoors that can be adjusted as the air conditioning cycles on and off. Cotton and other natural fibers are best because they breathe and won’t trap heat.
  • Place a cool washcloth on the back of the person’s neck (re-cool the towel often), or offer a cool shower, bath, or washcloth wipe-down.
  • Place cool wet socks on the feet or have the patient sit up with his/her feet in a pan of cool water.

At the Center for Hope Hospice, we always make sure each and every person in our care is comfortable and receiving just what the doctor ordered. For patients receiving care in their homes or in other medical settings, our hospice nurses will work with families or staff to help avoid unnecessary discomfort and the issues associated with heat-related illnesses during periods of extreme heat. If you are caring for a loved one at home and have a question about how to handle the heat, call us at (908) 889-7780. 

Call us anytime.