With a heat wave causing dangerously high temperatures and triple-digit heat indexes for millions of people, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) is providing important tips to help families affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses keep their loved ones safe.

“Extreme temperatures and heat are especially dangerous for people living with dementia-related illnesses because they are more susceptible to heat stroke, hyperthermia, and dehydration due to the way these illnesses impact the brain,” said Jennifer Reeder, LCSW, AFA’s Director of Educational and Social Services. “Caregivers need to be proactive and prepared to protect their loved ones. Taking a few simple steps will go a long way.”

AFA advises family caregivers to take the following steps:

Take steps to prevent wandering – Wandering is a common behavior for individuals with dementia. It is potentially dangerous, as they can easily become lost and disoriented, and unable to reach out for help. That danger heightens in extreme heat conditions where hyperthermia can develop very quickly. Support the potential benefits of walking outdoors- a feeling of purposefulness or pleasure- in a safe, indoor environment. Try creating walking paths around the home with visual cues, engaging the person in simple tasks; and providing stimulating and enjoyable activities (i.e., exercise, music, crafts).

Wandering can also be a response to excessive stimuli, triggered by the need to get away from noise and people. It can also be an expression of an unmet need (i.e., hunger, thirst, needing to use the bathroom). Ensuring basic needs are met can reduce the chances of wandering.

Have a plan of action in case your loved one does wander off. Use a permanent marker to write their name, or sew identification into their clothes that includes your contact information. Keep a recent photo and medical information on hand, as well as information about familiar destinations they used to frequent. This information can be shared with emergency responders to aid in search and rescue efforts.

Help the person stay hydrated – Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses can diminish a person’s ability to know when they are thirsty, making it critically important for caregivers to monitor them and encourage them to drink frequently. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages, as these drinks may contribute to dehydration.

Watch for warning signs of heat-related illnesses – Dementia can impair a person’s ability to detect changes in temperature and decrease their skin sensitivity.  This makes them more susceptible to heat stroke, a dangerous elevation in body temperature sparked by exposure to extreme environmental heat, or to the troublesome combination of heat and humidity. Watch for warning signs: excessive sweating; exhaustion; flushed, red, or hot skin, muscle cramps; a fast pulse, headaches, dizziness, nausea, or sudden changes in mental status. Resting in an air-conditioned room, removing clothing, applying cold compresses and drinking fluids all help cool the body. If the person faints, shows excessive confusion or becomes unconscious, consider it a medical emergency and call 911 immediately.

Know where to cool down – Many municipalities have designated “cooling centers,” such as community centers, senior centers, libraries and other municipal/public buildings, where people without air conditioning in their homes can go to cool down. If the person with dementia does not have air conditioning, find the nearest cooling center and take them to spend time there.

Be proactive – Make sure the person has plenty of water and access to air conditioning or other cooling mechanisms. Fully charge cell phones, tablets, and other electrical devices and have flashlights easily accessible, as blackouts and other power failures can occur during heat waves. Have the emergency contact numbers for local utility providers, as well as the police and fire departments, readily accessible. If you don’t live near your loved one, arrange for someone who does to check on them. Inform them of emergency contacts and where important medical information can be found, such as their insurance card.

AFA’s Helpline, staffed entirely by licensed social workers who are specifically trained in dementia care, can provide additional information and support for families. The Helpline is available seven days a week by phone (866-232-8484), text message (646-586-5283), and web chat (www.alzfdn.org).

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