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Keeping residents safe this summer

Key points:

  • Providers should be alert to the risks of heat and sun exposure when caring for older people and:
    • look for signs of poor hydration, for example less frequent toileting
    • look for signs of overheating, for example red skin or confusion.

The La Niña weather phenomenon may be easing but the effects of adverse weather events remain.

In addition, the current COVID-19 wave presents challenges across the country, especially as people come together over the holiday season.

With summer now upon us, it is time to reconsider the risks this season brings for older Australians.

As the weather heats up, please be alert to the risks of heat and sun exposure when caring for older people.

Aged care providers should clearly understand the inherent risks in their locations, spaces and their individual residents.

People at particular risk include:

  • those with dementia who may not recognise that they are heating up
  • those who are very frail or have a low body mass who may heat up more easily
  • those who struggle to maintain good hydration
  • those with mobility problems who cannot move themselves to a shady area or cooler space, or who can’t remove outer clothing or bedding.

Locations to be aware of:

  • buildings or internal areas that cannot be air conditioned or cooled
  • outdoor areas which change from shade to full sun as the sun moves across the day, or which are sheltered from cooling breezes
  • indoor areas where the sun can reach through glass.

Strategies to enable staff to manage these risks should be clearly communicated.

Appropriate improved ventilation is one of a number of controls that can be used to limit the spread of certain respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 in indoor environments. While increasing the introduction of outdoor air may improve ventilation and cooling, this may not always be appropriate in hot or humid weather, or during periods of low outdoor air quality. 

Staff should be aware that elderly people can quickly suffer discomfort and clinical consequences of overheating and sunburn. Staff should also be aware of the ambient temperature rising in different times and locations, and of the clothing that people are wearing.

In hotter weather and in heatwaves, staff should be reminded to:

  • monitor fluid intake of vulnerable residents
  • encourage more frequent drinking of fluids
  • be aware if toileting becomes less frequent as this is a sign of poor hydration
  • respond as a priority to residents saying they are, or appear, hot or thirsty
  • remind and assist residents with sunscreen, hats and protective clothing if sun exposure is possible
  • offer tepid sponging or showering
  • be aware of the signs of overheating, including red or very pale skin, or confusion, as a clinical emergency.

The Department of Health has checklists about caring for older people in warmer weather specifically for residential aged care and for home care service providers.

Safe Work Australia and the AHPPC have useful information on ventilation.

Dr Melanie Wroth MB BS, FRACP

Chief Clinical Advisor

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