The Skinny on Senior Skin

By Christine Law and Bal Agrawal

You love your senior from head to toe. But when was the last time you actually examined him or her from head to toe, to make sure their skin is in good shape?

Just like the rest of our bodies, our skin changes as we age. Your elderly loved one may need your help to keep his skin healthy, and to keep him comfortable, too. We spoke with Dr. Peter Friedman, a dermatologist and instructor in clinical dermatology at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian Hospital, to get the basics on what caregivers need to know:

Senior skin is dryer. Our skin has a thin, oily film that helps prevent water loss. As we age, however, that natural barrier breaks down a bit, and the skin itself gets thinner. The result: “Seniors’ skin gets more dry, and also more susceptible to drying conditions,” says Dr. Friedman. Things like cold weather or strong soap can affect your elderly loved one even more than it affects you, leading to dry skin eczema and itchiness.

Fortunately, a good skincare routine can diminish the discomfort. “Help your senior do a lot of moisturizing, especially in colder times,” advises Dr. Friedman. Your physician can recommend a moisturizer—as a general rule, Dr. Friedman recommends something on the greasier side, “closer to the petroleum jelly end of the spectrum,” he says.

Stay away from perfumed lotions and stick with simple formulas, and apply them after bathing and whenever skin could use more moisture. And encourage your senior to bathe in lukewarm water rather than taking long, hot showers or baths; they make skin even drier.

Seniors get more skin growths. It’s just one of those things that accompanies advancing age, due to factors like decades of sun exposure. Fortunately, most of these growths are benign. One particularly common kind, called seborrheic keratosis, produces spots that can be rough, brown, wart-like, and waxy. Though they can look alarming and resemble skin cancer, they aren’t dangerous. “Elderly people can have a few of these, or literally hundreds of them,” says Dr. Friedman.

Still, he adds, it’s important to remember that not everything is age-related. He recommends looking over your elderly loved one from head to toe every two to three months to see if there are any noticeable skin changes—if so, consult your senior’s primary care physician.

Bruises may be big and frequent. Blame this one, too, on decades of sun exposure. “The skin gets thinner, and the fibrous structures that support the capillary walls grow thinner as well, and become very fragile,” Dr. Friedman explains. Because of these changes, even the slightest pressure on an elderly person’s skin can cause large bruises. There’s no good treatment besides to elevate the area.

As is the case with skin growths, don’t automatically write off a senior’s bruise as age-related. Checking your his skin every two to three months will help you notice lingering bruises—if you see any, contact your senior’s doctor to discuss it.

Itches and rashes may need to be investigated. Since seniors’ skin is thinner and more delicate, it can often be itchy too. But—especially if a loved one is in a care facility or was in a hospital recently—the discomfort also could be due to an infestation of burrowing skin mites. These tiny creatures cause a condition called scabies, which is contagious and severely itchy. “It doesn’t really affect one’s health in general, but it can be uncomfortable,” says Dr. Friedman. If an itch doesn’t go away skin is properly moisturized, speak with a physician.

Similarly, rashes may need a closer look. One to be on the lookout for is shingles. This painful, blistering rash, which most often appears as a stripe that wraps around either side of the torso, is actually a reactivation of the chicken pox virus. Early treatment may make its duration shorter and reduce the chance of complications, so contact your senior’s physician immediately. (If your elderly loved one has never had shingles, speak to his doctor-–there is a vaccine available that could reduce the likelihood of a shingles outbreak.)

Seniors still need sunscreen and professional skin checks. It’s never too late to wear sunscreen, Dr. Friedman stresses. Its protective benefits are something we all need throughout our lives. He recommends that everyone use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays) of SPF 30 or higher.

And remember that even if you’re checking your senior’s skin regularly, he’ll also need a yearly checkup by a dermatologist. If your senior is taking drugs that suppress his immune system, or he has risk factors such as a family history of melanoma or a personal history of skin cancer, he may need to be seen more often.

By following these rules, you’ll help keep your senior safe and happy in the skin he’s in.

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