Dehydration and the Elderly

Dehydration is a condition in which the body does not have an adequate fluid intake to make up for the fluids that are lost due to natural body functions. If these fluids are not replaced, it can cause a myriad of health problems. When the person suffering from dehydration is elderly, the potential for severe health problems increases drastically. If the condition is left untreated or becomes chronic, it becomes a life-threatening situation.

Dehydration in Nursing Home Patients

Dehydration is a common problem in nursing homes and is considered to be one of the most common types of neglect and abuse. In fact, studies conducted on 40 nursing home patients found that 25 were suffering from health issues that may have originated due to dehydration.

Nursing home dehydration has a number of potential causes, including:

  • Communication Issues – Many patients may be unable to communicate when they are thirsty, or what types of fluids they prefer. In some cases, the patients may be unable to communicate at all, which exacerbates the problem even more.
  • Inadequate Supervision – Many nursing homes deal with less than ideal staffing, which results in elderly patients going unsupervised for extended periods of time.
  • Lack of Training – Due to the high rate of turnover seen among nursing home staff, many of those responsible for providing care may not have enough training to adequately understand and deal with their patients’ hydration needs.
  • Lack of Oversight – New staff members, may not have the supervision that should be provided by senior members. This can lead to missed patient cues and opportunities for providing adequate fluids.

Symptoms of Dehydration in the Elderly

Dehydration symptoms start out as seemingly minor, but they can quickly become serious problems. The following symptoms apply in nearly every case of dehydration, regardless of age, health conditions, backgrounds, or cultures

Initial Symptoms of Dehydration in the Elderly

  • Expressions of thirst
  • Mouth that appears sticky or dry
  • Overly dry skin
  • A decrease in frequency of urination
  • A decline of urine produced

Severe Dehydration Symptoms in the Elderly

  • Decrease in or complete cessation of sweating
  • Confusion
  • Eyes that appear sunken
  • Irritability
  • Rapid breathing
  • Delirium
  • Loss of consciousness

Complications of Dehydration

The health effects of dehydration on the elderly can be severe, and the potential for increased health problems increases when the condition is chronic or occurs frequently. Dehydration is a common issue in nursing homes, with dehydration and malnutrition being responsible for around 1,400 deaths of nursing home patients between 1999 and 2002. Some of the most common complications associated with elder dehydration include:

  • Brain Swelling – When a patient has been without proper hydration for an extended period, the brain may attempt to store more fluids than normal. This can cause damage to the cells, and may even rupture them, leading to swelling in the tissues of the brain.
  • Kidney Failure – When kidneys are deprived of adequate liquids for long periods, it can result in an inability to filter and remove harmful waste products in the blood.
  • Seizures – The decrease in fluids in the muscles can cause involuntary contractions, as well as causing the patient to lose consciousness.
  • Coma – If elderly patients do not receive adequate fluids over long periods, the prolonged dehydration can cause them to slip into a coma.
  • Death – Severe dehydration that is not acknowledged or treated can result in death.


Whether due to negligence, or outright abuse, elder dehydration is a serious concern when it comes to nursing home patients. If your loved one has suffered from dehydration in a nursing home, or even died due to a severe lack of vital fluids, those responsible for his or her care can and should be held accountable.