The elderly population is considered to include any adult who is over the age of 65. Due to increased medical advancements and better overall healthcare, life expectancy is increasing all of the time. It is important for us to know and understand the changes that take place when a person ages, and know how to properly care for these elderly people in the event of an emergency.
There is no specific age when a person will experience specific changes in their body or health. A person can be older because of years, but have a “young” healthy heart. This same person may have an “old” liver or kidneys. The rate of body change is unique from person to person; however, in general, a person’s body function begins to decline as early as in their 30s. Lungs do not work as efficiently as they did when a person was younger, so, the person is at a higher risk of developing lung diseases and illnesses. The heart pumps less blood when it beats as a person ages, so the heart rate naturally decreases with age. Reflex responses slow with age too, causing a person to react slower. Memory, hearing, and vision are also things that decline as we age. These are all things that need to be taken into consideration when we are attempting to help an elderly person during an emergency.
When dealing with an elderly person, it is very important that you remain as calm as possible. If you are calm about the situation, chances are, the elderly person will be able to remain calmer too. Conversely, if you are not calm, the elderly person will probably not be able to calm down. Remaining calm keeps the blood pressure down, and can help lessen the severity of an emergency.
Communicating properly is also important when dealing with the elderly. Remember, they may not be able to understand what you are trying to say, they may be confused as to what is going on, they may have difficulty seeing, and they may not be able to hear very well. When you communicate with the elderly, be sure to do so in a calm, clear voice. Look them directly in the eyes, if possible. Explain what you are going to do before you do it to avoid startling them. If they repeatedly ask what is going on, repeatedly answer them in a patient and caring manner. Try to learn their name, if you do not know it, and use their name when you are speaking to them. If the person normally wears glasses and does not have them on, try to find them and help put them on. This way, the person can see you better and may be less confused as a result. The same applies to a hearing aid. If the elderly person wears a hearing aid and does not have it in, it could be helpful to find it for them. Gather as much information about the person and the situation as you can from the people around you. This can help you care for the elderly person better. Knowing what happened, if the person normally wears glasses and/or hearing aids, what kind of medications they are taking, and their normal state of mind can all prove useful in helping the elderly person in an emergency situation.
It is important to understand that many times, an elderly person who lives at home is afraid of having to go to a nursing home. This person fears losing their independence and as a result, will often try to minimize an emergency situation by saying things like, “Oh, it’s nothing”, or “I’m fine, just give me a minute.” Other times, an elderly person just may not recognize that what they are experiencing is an emergency situation.
The leading cause of death to people over the age of 65, according to the American Red Cross, is falls. Due to decreased reflexes, impaired vision and hearing, medical conditions, such as arthritis, and loss of balance, the elderly are at a higher risk of falling. Falls can result in bones being broken due to weakened and brittle bones that simply accompany older age. Falls require medical assistance to check for any broken bones. It is important that you keep the elderly person lying down if they have fallen, until an ambulance arrives to help. The ambulance crew is trained in the proper ways to move a person to minimize pain, and reduce the chance of hurting them further.
Head injuries are another risk that is greater in the elderly. As we age, brain size decreases. This causes more space in the head between the brain and the skull. The brain can move around more easily, which in turn, increases the risk of brain injury. There are times when an elderly person does not show any sign of a head injury until a few days after the injury has occurred. This is why you should always suspect a head injury if an elderly person has any unexplained behavioral changes, especially if they have recently had a fall or blow to the head.
Although confusion often accompanies some diseases that are known to affect the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s, confusion in the elderly may signal a medical emergency. For example, an elderly person who has pneumonia may not have a fever, chest pain, or be coughing, but this person may be very confused because they are not getting enough oxygen to their brain. You should never assume that confusion is just a normal part of aging, often times, there is an underlying condition that is causing the confusion.
An elderly person is more susceptible to extremes temperatures. The person may not be able to feel the extreme temperatures because their body can not regulate temperature effectively. This can cause the body temperature to rise or fall very quickly and to dangerous levels. An elderly person’s body retains heat because the ability to sweat is decreased and the circulatory system cannot adjust to heat properly. If you see any signs of a heat related illness in an elderly person, you should take their temperature. If their temperature is above normal, call 9-1-1, or your local emergency number immediately. Slowly cool the person off with a lukewarm sponge bath.
If you find an elderly person hot to the touch, unable to speak, unconscious, or semiconscious, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number immediately. Put the person in a cooler location, but do not attempt to cool them quickly. You do not want to put this person in front of a fan or air conditioner, and you do not want to cool them quickly with cool water. Doing this can cause an elderly person to become chilled and suffer from hypothermia.
Hypothermia is another weather related illness that can easily affect the elderly. If an older person has hypothermia, you will probably notice that they want to lie down often. This will lower their body temperature even more. If you think that an elderly person has hypothermia, even a mild form of hypothermia, first feel their skin to see if it is cold. Then, take their temperature. If their temperature is below the normal 98.6 degrees, put the person in a warm room, wrap them in one or two blankets, give them warm, decaffeinated and non-alcohol drinks, and call the doctor for further instructions.
If you take an elderly person’s temperature and it is below 95 degrees, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number immediately. A temperature this low in an elderly person is life-threatening. Do not apply direct heat to them, such as a heating pad or electric blanket set to high temperature, or a hot bath. If you do this, the blood will flow toward the area of the body that is being heated and will take blood away from the person’s vital organs.
In conclusion, when caring for an elderly person in an emergency situation, it is important to remember that it is normal for them to have trouble seeing, hearing, and understanding. You need to handle them with great care and patience. Speak directly to them in a clear voice to explain anything you are going to do. If confusion is present, it can be a sign of a head injury or severe illness and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible. If you are dealing with a temperature related illness, remember, a temperature that is above normal or below normal can signal a life-threatening condition. You should call 9-1-1 in these cases or in any case where you are unsure. It is always better to be safe and call 9-1-1 than to be sorry that you didn’t later on.