The heat is on, so check on your elders

August 21, 2017

peering out at the scorching summer sun through window blinds

This summer has already been a scorcher, and sadly, deadly for the most vulnerable populations, including our elders.

Arizona’s record-breaking heat wave has already claimed lives, and the rise in heat-related deaths, especially among the older population, is expected to increase.

While there is a robust public awareness campaign when it comes to leaving kids and pets in hot cars, it seems there is not as much of a focus on the dangers of heat exposure in the elder population. Some urban communities offer cooling stations and free fans for the poor and elderly, and these are important initiatives. But making resources available and getting people to use them can be two very different things.

I live in the Deep South, where air conditioning for the most part is seen as a necessity. However, as a kid in southern California, there were apartments we lived in that didn’t have air conditioning, and our family cars never had air conditioning. Entering a car that had been sitting in a sunny parking lot on a sweltering summer day for hours, felt like an oven, taking your breath away. I remember my skin sticking to the hot vinyl covering of the back seat, and my father would keep a couple of rags handy so he could touch the steering wheel without getting burned.

My less-than-fond memories of the heat were on my mind recently, after I spent two weeks tending to what was my parents’ condo in New Mexico. Yes, parts of New Mexico get insanely hot (such as Roswell) but my parents lived in mountainous Ruidoso, and though it’s only an hour and a half from Roswell, the difference in climate is surprising. While Roswell may be roasting in the 100s for most of the summer, Ruidoso usually maxes out in the low 80s. Summers are typically pleasant, moderate affairs, at least until monsoon season begins.

But not so this year. The high temperatures spiked into the 90s most days that I was in Ruidoso, and the condo does not have air conditioning. I survived the heat wave with just fans, but it was not pleasant. I’m in my early 40s and in reasonably good health. The heat left me feeling lethargic and sleep was difficult. It didn’t help that I caught a summer cold on top of it all. I would hate to think about handling that type of heat 30 years from now, while likely dealing with other chronic health issues.

The thing about heat is that it can be a stealthy killer, and its effects can sneak up on a person. I’m a big water drinker, so staying hydrated is a no-brainer for me, but I remember how hard it was to get Mom to drink enough water when I was her caregiver. Older generations grew up used to doing without, and may think it’s petty to complain about something like the heat.

I ran into a related problem with my mother. She insisted upon turning off the heat overnight, even though the temperatures could drop well below freezing during the winter. Mom also insisted upon leaving all of the windows open a crack, because she feared carbon monoxide poisoning. (A carbon monoxide monitor did not dissuade her open window habit.) As she was recovering from cancer, she said on one particularly frigid night that she’d like to leave the heat on. I nearly collapsed from shock. I kept my composure while being supportive of her “decision” that I had suggested dozens of times before. And it worked. Mom kept the heat on low during the night, which helped her sleep better and aided in her recovery.

It’s not enough to buy your elder loved one an air conditioner or make sure the furnace is in good shape. I’ve read far too many accounts of older people who had air conditioning, but refused to use it, due to financial concerns or just distrust of modern conveniences. I would encourage family caregivers to check in daily with their older loved ones who live in extreme climates, and see how they are doing. For long-distance caregivers, a neighbor or friend may be willing to stop by and make sure the home is at an appropriate temperature. It’s so easy to take these things for granted, but heat waves and cold snaps are still costing people their lives.

Written by Joy Johnston
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.

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