A sweltering, humid summer day can be brutal for most of us, but for the elderly extreme heat is downright dangerous.
Last month, Angelica Perez, 75, was taken to the emergency room after a hot spell. She fainted from dehydration.
“I was on the phone with my daughter. The air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was a very hot day,” said Perez. “I walked from the living room to the kitchen with my eyes closed — my eyes closed completely — and I fainted. I was by myself. My husband wasn’t there.”
Perez, an elderly asthmatic, is among those most vulnerable to severe heat. The elderly often struggle to regulate their body temperature, and certain medications can make it even harder to stay cool. Those with medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes and obesity, are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.
“In high-income countries, people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and for older adults that means primarily their homes,” said Christopher Uejio, professor of geography at Florida State University.
Uejio authored a study investigating the indoor environments of people receiving emergency medical care in New York City. It found that outdoor temperatures and solar radiation increase heat indoors, and that older adults receiving emergency care tend to have hotter indoor environments than younger adults. In the same study, Uejio found that indoor heat exacerbated respiratory problems.
“Even at relatively moderate temperatures — so temperatures around the mid 80s — we are seeing that indoor heat exposures are associated with people making more respiratory distress calls,” said Uejio. “A lot of our work shows that the biggest impact is actually just from summer temperatures just being hot.”
Air conditioning is the most effective tool for staying cool, but not all senior citizens have access to air conditioning. Those who do are often on a fixed income, and they may struggle to keep up with the cost of power. After her incident, Perez told her doctor that she didn’t want to keep her air conditioner on because she didn’t want to pay for power.
“The doctor said, ‘Keep it on. If you don’t have money, I’ll pay for it,’ the doctor says to me. I said, ‘But, this is like a joke.’ He’s not going to pay for it,” said Perez, laughing. She now uses three air conditioners to cool her home. “I don’t care about the bill… I don’t want that to happen to me again, oh my God.”
A 2011 survey of New Yorkers found that, among senior citizens and adults in fair or poor health, 34 percent did not own air conditioners or rarely used their air conditioners on hot days. Among those who didn’t use air conditioning, 49 percent stayed home on hot days.
“The greatest impact of extreme heat often happens behind closed doors and we don’t see them,” said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. “That’s why it’s often referred to as the silent killer.” To accommodate people this group, New York City opens cooling centers when temperatures soar. These are air conditioned spaces at libraries, community centers and senior centers.
On average, heat waves kill more people than any other weather event in the United States, according to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New York City alone, extreme heat contributed to 447 emergency room visits and 150 hospital admissions each year on average from 2000 to 2011, according to the report. Thanks to climate change, New York is only going to get warmer. On our current path, the city could endure almost 70 days a year of temperatures above 90 degrees F.
Some neighborhoods are more susceptible to extreme heat, including the South Bronx, central Brooklyn and northern Manhattan. In response, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency developed the Cool Neighborhoods NYC initiative. Among other goals, the program aims to educate senior citizens in these neighborhoods about the risks of extreme heat.
Jainey Bavishi, one of the leaders of Cool Neighborhoods NYC, said the city is planting trees in areas vulnerable to heat, improving collaboration between community organizations and vulnerable New Yorkers, and painting one million square feet of rooftops white to keep them cool. Said Bavishi, “Our approach has been very focused on not only addressing the threats of climate change but also helping to build livable communities.”
Mariana Surillo writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.