Dehydration: how it affects the elderly and what to do about it

“One in five older people living in care homes does not drink enough fluid.”

According to research performed by Dr Lee Hooper at Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia (UEA), one in five older people living in care in the UK are likely to be dehydrated. The figure is higher for those living at home without a carer, with a quarter not getting enough to drink. Those with dementia were six times more likely to suffer from dehydration. These somewhat worrying figures were presented at a Royal Society of Medicine conference in the UK in 2014.

Alarmingly, analysis of death certificates had shown that well over 1,000 aged care residents had suffered death relating to dehydration between 2003 and 2012. However, Dr Hooper went on to warn people that there are other contributing factors that must be considered at the end of an individual’s life, particularly when their mental health is compromised.

Contributing factors for dehydration
Although it is important that aged care workers take the issue of hydration in the elderly seriously, the problem is not solely a quality of care issue. As we age, we simply lose our sense of thirst. Consequently, elderly people desire less fluids than their younger counterparts. Other seniors drink less due to continence or prostate problems. Dr Cooper indicates that amongst the elderly community, issues around the toilet and continence can cause considerable anxiety and therefore may affect how much someone wants to drink.

If there is a lack of social interaction, this can also give an elderly person less incentive to drink. Most social activity involves sharing some sort of beverage, whether it’s enjoying a cup of tea, glass of juice or an alcoholic drink.

Memory loss in the elderly is a strong contributor to drinking less, particularly when an elderly person no longer feels thirsty. This problem is amplified if the senior is suffering dementia – a dementia sufferer may well lose track of normal day to day routines liking eating and drinking. The amount of medication seniors are taking can also influence their hydration levels.

Dehydration and health problems
Everyone feels better when they’re well hydrated, but keeping up fluid levels is also important for our health. Dehydration can have nasty effects on the human body, particularly in seniors. It can create confusion and anxiety, increasing the risk of falls. It is also a major contributing cause of constipation which is a very uncomfortable but common condition for the elderly. Studies have also shown links between dehydration and some serious long term health issues like heart disease, infections, bladder cancer and colorectal cancer.

Dehydration: recognising the symptoms
Aged care workers and family members caring for the elderly should familiarise themselves with the signs of dehydration.

Mild dehydration can cause the following symptoms:

  • headaches
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • cramping in limbs
  • dry mouth
  • weakness, with a general feeling of being unwell
  • crying, but with few tears


Serious dehydration can be signified by:

  • low blood pressure
  • convulsions
  • rapid breath
  • wrinkled skin with no elasticity
  • sunken eyes
  • a bloated stomach
  • a weak, rapid pulse
  • severe cramping in the limbs, back and abdomen


Helping seniors stay well hydrated
Elderly drinking water for health - Sage Aged CareOlder people should be consuming at least one litre of water daily. You can encourage this level of fluid consumption in several ways. Suggestions include:

  • Giving an elderly person a little more fluid each time you offer them a drink.
  • Punctuate certain times of the day with a glass of water, for example, make first thing in the morning, after lunch and mid-afternoon “glass of water time”.
  • Remind the senior person to take sips of water throughout the day and not wait until they feel thirsty.


It’s important to remember, too, that alcohol dehydrates the body, so drinking alcohol in moderation is the best way to ensure it doesn’t affect hydration levels. Caffeine is also a diuretic, so it’s best to keep the amount of tea and coffee consumed to a minimum and to ensure that the effects of tea, coffee and alcohol are counteracted by drinking plenty of water.

Sage Institute of Aged Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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