Skin is the largest organ in the body, and for the elderly, one of the most delicate and prone to damage. With age, our skin becomes thinner and less elastic and loses much of the protective fatty tissue that helps cushion blood vessels from injury. According to the Mayo Clinic online series Healthy Aging, seniors “might notice that they bruise more easily. Decreased production of natural oils might make skin drier. Wrinkles, age spots and small growths called skin tags are more common. Excessive exposure to the sun when young speeds this process.”
In The Skinny on Skin Problems, the online group, Aging Care, lists a number of skin problems often found in the elderly population:
The loss of oil glands (which help keep skin soft) is the main cause of dry skin. Dry skin can become itchy, cracked and in severe cases, can bleed or become infected. Treatment: Use a cleansing soap that has moisturizer or is formulated for dry skin. Bathe every other day, rather than every day. Use only warm water, not hot, for bathing. Drink more water to keep the skin hydrated.
Most bruises are harmless and go away without treatment, but bruising easily can sometimes be a sign of a more serious problem. Blood-thinning drugs and some other medications can reduce the blood’s ability to clot. As a result, bleeding might take longer than usual to stop – which allows blood to leak out and cause a bruise. Applying a cold compress to the bruise can reduce blood flow to the area and may reduce the size of the bruise and decrease inflammation.
Pressure Ulcers and Bed Sores
A pressure ulcer or bed sore is an open wound on the skin that occurs as a result of lying or sitting in the same position for extended periods of time. Pressure sores can happen when a person is confined to bed or a chair and typically develops on skin that covers bony areas of the body, such as the heels, ankles, hips, and tailbone. It is easier to prevent a pressure sore than treat and cure it. Minor sores should be kept clean and dry and a person with a bed sore should be helped to change positions frequently. Let your supervisor know if your client develops a pressure ulcer or bed sore so that it can be evaluated for treatment.
Skin Damage Due to Incontinence
Urinary and fecal incontinence leaves the aging population at risk for infections and skin breakdown and makes the skin more susceptible to injuries. Skin problems associated with incontinence are best prevented by keeping the skin clean and dry and using a barrier cream or ointment that repels moisture.
Prevent Skin Problems Before they Occur
The best way to prevent skin problems is to take frequent “surveys” of aging skin and note any changes you observe. Routinely check for bruising, peeling, tearing, or persistent itching. The website Retire at Home suggests the following additional skin care tips for seniors:
- Drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated and flush out toxins that can cause skin problems.
- Use a humidifier or place a bowl of water on a radiator to increase the amount of moisture in the air. This will help combat dry skin, cracking and/or chapping.
- Keep nails trimmed to avoid accidental self-inflicted scratches.
- Avoid harsh soaps and excessive washing.
- Use a skin cream formulated for dry, sensitive skin.