The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.
Hubert H. Humphrey
A deadly heat wave struck Europe during the summer of 2003 and killed thousands of people before it was over. More than 1,000 people died in Paris alone, most of them elderly women who lived by themselves. Today, the American Midwest, parts of the South, and the East Coast are trapped in a brutal heat wave that doesn't seem to want to end. So far, casualties have been held to a minimum, but there's no doubt that elderly people, particularly those living in urban centers, are at risk. The CNN article below provides a synopsis of the situation.
- Seniors don't sweat as effectively as they did when they were younger.
- Many seniors have chronic health problems that make them more vulnerable to heat.
- Elderly people may not drink enough water to stay hydrated.
- The aging poor in urban centers may not have air conditioning or fans.
- Many older people live alone and may become ill without anyone realizing.
- Medications can increase the risk of heat stroke and illnesses related to heat.
- Older people with cognitive decline may not make good choices about staying cool.
How can you help your elderly parents (or other loved ones) safe?
The first line of defense is awareness.
- Keep track of the temperature where your parents live.
- If temperatures get above 90 F (or 30 C) check in on a regular basis while the hot weather lasts. Checking in once or twice a day isn't too often.
- When you check in, make sure that your parents are staying hydrated, staying inside or in an air-conditioned place during the hottest part of the day.
- If your parents show signs of heat stroke, make sure they get to the doctor immediately. If you don't live nearby, encourage them to phone an ambulance or a friend or relative who lives nearby to check on them.
For many elderly people, neighbors and other volunteers can be the first line of defense. The proactive attitudes of volunteers and state authorities in places like Ohio, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, have made a huge difference to the well-being of seniors during the latest heat wave.
Seniors look out for each other during heat wave
Don't rely upon others to help out in an emergency, however. Advance planning is a life-saver. Put together a Heat Wave Survival Kit and make sure that your parent's home is heat-ready and that they know what to do in case of extreme heat. It's particularly important to have a plan in place for a power outage. Unfortunately, if your parents don't have a cell phone, you can't necessarily check on their situation. (A good reason to make sure they keep a charged cell phone ready at all times.) If you have any doubt about your parents well-being make sure that they're okay yourself or, if you live far away, contact the closest disaster or emergency agency and have them put your parents on a list of people to check. (If you don't know who to phone, the local police or fire department is probably a good place to start.) Sadly, there may be times when none of these things are possible. Then you might consider hiring someone to go by and check. People are often available on the local craigslist or through agencies such as Home Instead.
Finally, it might not be a bad idea to plan your vacation/holidays to be with your parents for a week or two during the hottest time of the year. At the least, make sure they have a plan in place for the next heat wave, whenever it comes. And it will. (Glass of water, photo: Joey Manley, flickr creative commons)