08/22/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Cooling the Flames of Depression During the Dog Days of August

Summer Heat Can Mean Real Risks for Older People
While the summer brings sunshine, family barbecues and welcome distance from the memory of harsh winter weather here in the Northeast, it also brings added risks for the elderly. As the temperature rises, especially during the humid, end-of-summer August weather, so does the danger of heat exhaustion, heat stroke and heat cramps.

According to the CDC, individuals 65 and older are more likely to be affected by these serious heat-related ailments, because their bodies don't adjust to the heat as well and because they are more likely to have a medical condition or take medications that impair their ability to handle heat. "Seniors also have to be aware of the more common issues of dehydration, trouble breathing and sunburn, which are important as well," says Kathleen Reilly, a certified Home Health Aide with Partners in Care, where I work, here in New York.

The bottom line is that older individuals need to be extra careful to keep well hydrated and limit their exposure to the heat, especially when the mercury climbs into the eighties or above. You've likely heard this before, of course, but such important information definitely benefits from repeating.

Another Side Effect of the Heat: Isolation
Fortunately, the risks of these heat-related problems are usually well-promoted by community centers and community health organizations. But fear of falling victim to the heat can have an unintended effect on the elderly -- isolation. When older people are warned not to venture outside in hot weather, those living alone (as roughly 30 percent of seniors do) can end up spending most of the day indoors by themselves. "Humans are social by nature," explains Constantine Checa, a Behavioral Health Nurse with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. "They require interaction with others." If an older person is deprived of this interaction for an extended period, it can ultimately lead to depression. We encourage homebound seniors who are more mobile to visit neighbors -- staying cool together -- or call family or friends to arrange visits in person or by phone when a home health aide is not available to help break the isolation."

Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Depression can take different forms, especially among the elderly, and no two people will exhibit exactly the same signs. Feelings of sadness don't necessarily have to be a symptom: a senior may have simply stopped doing favorite activities or may have lost interest in daily life. Other hallmarks of depression include feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, changes in sleep or appetite -- whether increased or decreased -- increased irritability, problems concentrating, feelings of guilt, tearfulness, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, fatigue or restlessness, and slower movement.

The presence of five or more such symptoms is generally considered sufficient for a diagnosis of depression. If you, or someone you know, are experiencing any of these symptoms or you feel that you or a loved one may be depressed, talk to your doctor about possible treatments, which can include psychotherapy and antidepressant medications.

For a full list of depression symptoms from AARP, click here.

Breaking Free
To break isolation's grip before it affects your mental health, Kathleen Reilly, a Home Health Aide from Partners in Care, offers the following suggestions:

  • First, acknowledge that isolation is a problem that you need help with
  • Reach out to community health organizations about having a nurse or social worker come to your home and help acquaint you with their programs and the community resources available to you
  • Talk to a mental health professional about your problems
  • Connect with your neighbors
  • Have someone set up Internet access for you and teach you how to use it
  • Take advantage of air-conditioned common space in your building (if available) and make a point of saying "hello" to people
  • Take exercise classes, or seated yoga if you're wheelchair bound, at a local senior center or gym
  • Catch up with family or friends on the telephone
  • Find a creative activity you can do at home, such as writing poetry about how you feel; remember, self-expression is a healing art
  • Find a visiting neighbors program in your area
  • Visit a community center, especially one which will provide transportation on hot days
  • Find a hobby (knitting, playing cards, or even painting) and try to schedule time each week to enjoy it with friends or neighbors

There are a number of organizations in your community that can help as well. Call or check the websites of your town, county or local senior centers, or speak to a qualified medical professional. You don't have to be isolated in the summer months -- you just have to take steps to ensure that you can "keep your cool" so the hot weather doesn't get the better of you, especially during the Dog Days of August.