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Dehydration in the Elderly: Signs and Prevention

By Angelike GauntJune 13, 2020
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Older adults are at higher risk of dehydration than younger people. But do you know how to spot signs of dehydration in your aging loved one? Symptoms of dehydration in elderly adults may sometimes be subtle, but not drinking enough water and fluids can have a big effect on the body, especially in the elderly.

Severe dehydration can lead to confusion, weakness, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bedsores in bedridden patients, and other serious conditions. Drinking enough fluids helps the body digest food, eliminate waste, regulate temperature through sweating, and maintain blood pressure.

Assisted living communities sometimes offer hydration programs that include nutrition plans, monitoring weight, keeping an eye on residents at high risk for dehydration, and more. If your loved one lives in an assisted living community, ask about available programs. But if your elderly parent lives at home or with you, read on to understand how to identify signs of dehydration and how to prevent it.

Why are seniors at risk for dehydration?

Dehydration occurs when a person loses more water than they take in. Dehydration in elderly adults is especially common for a number of reasons:

  • Reduced sense of thirst
    The natural aging process weakens the body’s ability to signal it does not have enough fluid. This means older adults don’t feel as thirsty as younger people do, and they may not realize they need to drink water.
  • Limited mobility
    Aging adults who are frail or have difficulty walking on their own may be less likely to get water for themselves or may depend on others to give them fluids.
  • Multiple medications
    Some of these medicines may be diuretics, which increase urination. Others may cause patients to sweat more, such as certain cancer medications.
  • Cognitive impairment
    Older adults who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia may need to be reminded to drink fluids or may need help staying hydrated.
  • Health conditions
    Uncontrolled diabetes or kidney disease may increase the risk of dehydration.
  • Common illnesses
    Common illnesses such as a cold or a sore throat may make an older adult less likely to drink enough fluids. Vomiting and diarrhea can also quickly cause dehydration in elderly adults.

What are the symptoms of dehydration in elderly adults?

Symptoms of dehydration in older adults may sometimes be difficult to recognize. If you think your aging parent may be dehydrated, you can check for a decrease in skin turgor or elasticity by pulling up the skin on the back of the hand for a few seconds. If the skin does not return to normal almost immediately, it could be a sign of dehydration.

Other signs and symptoms of dehydration in elderly adults may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dry mouth
  • Sunken eyes
  • Less frequent urination or low urine output
  • Dark-colored urine

More serious signs of severe dehydration include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty walking
  • Confusion

10 tips to prevent dehydration in older adults

Preventing dehydration in elderly adults can be as simple as ensuring they drink enough fluids. Follow these practical tips to help your loved one stay hydrated throughout the day.

  1. Drink up
    Encourage your loved one to drink water even if they’re not thirsty.
  2. Make it an all-day event
    If drinking a full glass of water at once is too much, encourage your parent to sip on water several times a day. Remind them to drink water when they wake up, with and in-between meals, and after physical activity.
  3. Keep a water bottle close by, especially if your loved one has mobility issues.
  4. Water is best, but you can help mix things up with flavored sparkling water or milk. Coffee and tea increase urination, so drink these sparingly.
  5. Offer foods with high water content, such as fruits, vegetables, and soup. Good options include watermelon, cucumbers, and low-sodium broths or soups.
  6. Drink a full glass of water with medications
    It’s easy to only take a few sips when taking medication, but encourage your parent to finish the whole glass.
  7. Check urine color
    If you’re worried about dehydration, monitor urine to make sure it’s light in color.
  8. Bring water with you if you go for a walk or on an outing with your loved one, especially if the weather is hot or humid.
  9. Ask about hydration programs if your parent lives in a senior living community. Some communities have programs in place to encourage residents to drink sufficient fluids.
  10. Talk to your loved one’s doctor about how much fluid they need to consume each day to stay hydrated. This is especially important if your loved one takes diuretics of laxatives regularly.

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s nutrition or ability to stay hydrated, or if your aging parent requires help with daily tasks, consider talking to one of our Senior Living Advisors. They can recommend home care or senior living options that may improve your loved one’s quality of life.

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Cleveland Clinic. “Drink up: dehydration is an often overlooked health risk for seniors.” https://health.clevelandclinic.org/drink-up-dehydration-is-an-often-overlooked-health-risk-for-seniors/.

National Institute on Aging. “Getting Enough Fluids.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/getting-enough-fluids.

Schols J.M., et al. “Preventing and treating dehydration in the elderly during periods of illness and warm weather.” The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 2009: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19214345/.

Angelike Gaunt