Urinary Tract Infections: The Great Imposter


Urinary tract infections (UTI) are common in older adults. Unfortunately, many UTIs are missed or undiagnosed because the symptoms may be different for an older person than when a young person gets a UTI.

Common symptoms of a UTI for a young person include burning pain, itching and frequent urination. Instead of presenting with classic symptoms, seniors are more likely to present with nonspecific symptoms such as confusion, agitation, decreased appetite, or a decline in cognitive function. It is easy to assume that these are just signs of old age or dementia.

If you notice that your loved one seems more confused than normal, ask your doctor for a blood test to rule out a urinary tract infection. Also, if you notice that the person’s urine is dark in color or smelly, you may also want to rule out any kind of infection.

There are several conditions that put a person at risk of developing a urinary tract infection and one of these is dehydration. Older people are particularly susceptible to dehydration, sometimes due to the medications they are on, decreased thirst, and decreased kidney function. An older person may also not want to drink because they don’t want to have to go to the bathroom. Encouragement and a regular toileting schedule may help overcome this resistance. A person with dementia may not feel the sensations of thirst or hunger, and may need visual and verbal cues as reminders to drink fluids.

A UTI is serious so it is important to take steps to prevent one from developing. Here are 10 tips to encourage a person to drink more fluids:

  1. Offer small amounts of fluid on a regular basis. Water is best but almost any fluid like tea, soup, or milkshakes will help.

  2. Always keep a glass of water next to their bed or favorite chair.

  3. Encourage them to take small sips at a time.

  4. Offer a drink with their medication to moisten their throat before they swallow the pills.

  5. Give them a glass of water, milk or juice with their meals. Avoid confusion by offering only one beverage at a time.

  6. Don’t negotiate food for fluids. For example, don’t say “I’ll get you another glass of milk if you eat a few more bites.” A person shouldn’t have to earn a glass of milk by doing something that you want them to do.

  7. Ask the person to try to drink a little more rather than telling them that they must drink it all up.

  8. Cue them to drink.

  9. Check with a doctor or dietitian if your loved one has difficulty with swallowing. They may recommend thickening the liquids.

  10. Use a favorite mug, fancy crystal glass or a plastic juice tumbler. Think about the person and what their personal preferences are in terms of glassware.

A UTI may be difficult to diagnose in an older adult. It is important to be aware of and watch for signs that may indicate that an infection is present. A UTI can lead to hospitalization and other medical complications so take steps necessary to reduce risk factors such as dehydration.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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