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How Older People Can Stay Safe During Deadly Heat Waves This Summer

by Joshua Brown
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Last summer in Arizona, paramedics were called to a retirement community where they found an 80-year-old woman who had collapsed in her hot mobile home that was filled with suffocating heat. She had been living in these conditions for several days because her air conditioner wasn’t working properly. Sadly, she could not be saved and the doctors said she died from the heat (which was around 99°F), as well as from existing heart disease and diabetes.

In Phoenix, the hottest big city in America, 77 people passed away last summer due to extreme heat since most of them did not have air conditioning. Even more shockingly, this pattern might happen three times more often in the future as global warming continues to increase. The people who were impacted by this tragedy were all elderly folks just like those living in Sun Lakes mobile home. This shows us how vulnerable older people are in facing rising temperatures.

A recent study has revealed that 37% of global heat-related deaths are caused by climate change. Local governments around the world are taking steps to protect elderly people when temperatures become too hot. Rules have been created which limit the amount of electricity disconnected, with air conditioning being turned on at certain times and better communication systems with those living alone being implemented.

Phoenix, located in the Sonoran Desert, experiences more heat-related deaths than any other place in the U.S. So many deaths occur during the hot season (May to October) that Arizona’s capital has an online tracker for them. It was already very hot at the beginning of April this year – temperatures were in the high 90s.

Global Warming Taking Toll On Vulnerable Populations

Jennifer Ailshire, a researcher from University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, which studies how the environment affects health and aging, said that Phoenix is an example city for other places as the world begins to change rapidly. She fears that we are not doing enough to teach people about the bad effects of rising temperatures.

A study done in 2021 suggested that due to global warming caused by humans, around 1,100 Americans die every single year because of the hot weather. This number is mostly seen in cities located in the East and Midwest, since most people there don’t have air conditioning or aren’t used to hot temperatures. Another study found that as global warming continues, places all over the world will be feeling majorly high temperatures much more often than they do now.

Last year was Maricopa County’s deadliest summer ever, and some of the heat victims were very vulnerable. This included an elderly couple without family,an 83-year-old woman with memory problems who lived alone after her husband went to a hospice, and a 62-year-old refugee whose air conditioner stopped working.

The hot weather has caused 378 deaths in the county. These people mostly died outside but those who were stuck indoors were more powerless to protect themselves since temperatures were as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Older people, especially people of color, are even more susceptible to diseases like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure which puts them at a greater risk.

In 2022, three older African American women living in a Chicago housing complex passed away because their heating was left on while the air conditioning was off during an unusually hot day – it was 90 degrees outside in mid-May! During summer 2021, many people died from the heat wave across the U.S Pacific Northwest and Canada reported more than 600 deaths due to the very high temperatures.

Taking Care of Our Senior Citizens During Extreme Heat Waves

Lots of cities in the United States, like Phoenix, have made plans to help people on hot days. These plans include providing cooling centers and free water bottles. Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who works at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that some older people will need extra attention too during extreme heat waves.

Bernstein remembered a heat wave back in 1995 that took the lives of many elderly people in his city, Chicago. A sociologist called Eric M. Klinenberg studied the heat wave and found out that if older people had more social contacts, it could help protect them during disasters. Therefore, due to the fact that those who are sick or elderly can’t get on an Uber or bus to go to cooling centers, it is important they have social contacts around them to be safe.

“Older people are more likely to live alone and die,” he said. This is true of all kinds of extreme weather. For example, in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, around half of the 1,000 people who died were aged 75 or over; most had drowned as their homes flooded.

Chicago is trying to help by asking people to check on older relatives and neighbors during hot days and having city workers go visit their homes. But last year showed that more needs to be done after some elderly residents tragically lost their lives in a Chicago apartment fire.

Climate Resilience

Bernstein’s center is teaming up with Americares, a relief organization, to help clinics that treat vulnerable people get ready for extremely hot days and other types of extreme weather.

They have put together a ‘climate resilience tool kit’ of ideas to make sure patients know what to do in a heat wave – like having thermometers on the wall and knowing how to check the forecast on a smartphone. Plus, some tips for staying cool such as taking a shower or sponge bath, and drinking lots of water.

Alexis Hodges works as a nurse practitioner at the Community Care Clinic of Dare in North Carolina by the sea. She says that hot weather can be bad for people with kidney problems since it could lead to renal failure and make it harder for these folks to stay hydrated with medications like diuretics.

Alexis helped develop a climate kit to help out people living in places where there are extreme heat, hurricanes, floods and wildfires – which is what her region experiences.

Anthony Carano, who works at the Mountain Park Health centers in Phoenix helping 100,000 people each year, writes letters to power companies for patients with illnesses so that their electricity isn’t turned off if they are behind on payments.

Carano said that the mostly Latino people who she treats, many of whom have diabetes, live in an area with a lot of risks. Around 10% of these patients are over 60 years old.

Francisca Canes, a 77-year-old person, is visiting the doctor for back pain. She feels lucky to have two daughters who look after her during summer days. To keep in shape and stay healthy, she hugs up with some of her female pals very early in the morning at 4 am and they go on a four-mile (6.4 km) walk together.

Lifesavers

Maricopa County got $10 million more in federal money to help old and low-income people with their air conditioners. This brings the total of funds available to around $13.65 million. If you live in Phoenix or certain rural areas, you can apply for a free repair or replacement of your air conditioner through a special non-profit program.

The Foundation for Senior Living ran the Healthy Homes Air Conditioning Program last summer. This program helps around 30 people out with air conditioners or repairs, as well as home improvements. Priority goes to older people, those with disabilities and families with very young children who are more sensitive to hot weather conditions. If someone lives alone, they must make less than $27,180 in order to be eligible for this support program. Laura Simone, who is the coordinator of FSL Home Improvements, shared this information.

The program recently gave an 81-year-old widow, Socorro Silvas, who lives in a 1930s house energy efficient windows. Silvas was really thankful for the program that runs in Tolleson – a suburb near Phoenix which helped her get an air conditioner during a very hot summer season few years ago. Utility companies can also do their part to protect people by preventing power cuts while it is hot outside.

Dana Kennedy, the state director of AARP in Arizona, said that air conditioning is really important to have if you live there because it can be a life and death situation, especially for elderly people. AARP has been working hard to create rules so that no one will lose power in the hot summer months.

“Preventing Heat-Related Tragedies

In 2018, something very unfortunate happened in Phoenix, Arizona. A 72-year-old woman named Stephanie Pullman passed away while outside temperatures were incredibly hot at 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 Celsius). The medical examiner said that her death was caused by “environmental heat” and health issues. It turns out that all this happened because someone had shut off power to her house due to a debt of $176.84.

To prevent similar things from happening, the Arizona agency created new rules for its utilities that no longer allow electricity cutoffs for unpaid bills during the hottest months of the year.

Recently, after some people in Chicago passed away last year due to the heat, laws were put in place for apartment buildings. These rules now say that when it is hotter than 80 degrees (26.6 Celcius) out, all apartments must have air conditioning and those living there can control it themselves.

Kennedy said that mobile homes can become very dangerous in hot temperatures because they’re not insulated. Kennedy is helping people to make mobile homes safer, like adding more shade and cooling centers around the area. He said deaths from the heat are devastating, but with his help, these tragedies could be prevented.

Some important organizations gave me some money and help so that I could write this report. The organizations are called The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and The John A. Hartford Foundation.

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