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Heat Wave: How to Keep Seniors (and Yourself) Safe as Temperatures Rise

By Martha Michael

Heat Wave and Seniors

No matter how many times you’ve circled the sun, it’s easy to forget that when the earth tilts on its axis and temperatures hit their highest levels of the year, you’re absorbing more than just a little extra Vitamin D. Seniors are among the most vulnerable people on the planet when it comes to the sun’s effect on the human body and may need to be reminded that harmful weather patterns aren’t limited to tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards.

Heat is a leading cause of fatalities year after year, most recently in the Western United States, according to an article in the Washington Post. A record-breaking 107 degrees in Washington state caused 20 people to die in the Seattle area alone. The medical director at Harborview Medical Center compared the recent influx of patients with heat-related stress to the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

Portland, Oregon saw record-high temperatures twice in one week and also broke a different kind of record -- it received 491 calls for emergency medical assistance in one day. There were 45 heat-related deaths reported in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, a significant uptick from a total of 12 heat-related deaths between 2017 and 2019. Victims who died ranged in age from 44 to 97; many of them had underlying health conditions.

“This was a true health crisis that has underscored how deadly an extreme heat wave can be, especially to otherwise vulnerable people,” Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines says. “I know many county residents were looking out for each other and (I) am deeply saddened by this initial death toll.”

Heat-Related Illnesses

Your body cools you down in high temperatures, but when the weather heats up too rapidly or it’s extremely hot and humid, its ability to protect you becomes challenged. An article by the National Weather Service says that record-high temperatures occur when your body loses too much salt from sweating and it can’t replace the fluid you need, which leads to dehydration.

Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the article offers a list of symptoms that develop when a person gets too hot. Look for these signs when you check in on elderly neighbors or grandparents who may be too cavalier about seeking help in a heat wave.

Heat cramps - Sometimes the first sign of an illness brought on by intense heat, heat cramps typically occur in the legs and abdomen and are accompanied by heavy sweating. To treat spasms, apply pressure or massage the area affected and drink small sips of water, but do not drink fluids if nausea occurs.

Heat exhaustion - A victim of heat exhaustion experiences heavy sweating and skin becomes clammy and pale. He or she may have a fast, weak pulse and feel dizzy and nauseous, even to the point of vomiting. Treat with a cold bath or apply wet cloths to the skin. Sips of water may also help the victim recover.

Heat stroke - Symptoms include an intense headache, nausea, and a fast, strong pulse. A person experiencing heat stroke may be confused or lose consciousness as well. Go directly to a hospital or call 911 as this level of illness is considered an emergency. If possible, move to a cooler environment and apply cold cloths until help arrives.

Tips to Prevent Heat Stress

Before symptoms reach these levels, an ounce of prevention is key. There are simple steps to help seniors stay cool during summer’s hot temperatures which their children, grandchildren, and caregivers can apply to their specific situations. These also apply to those who aren’t seniors but are feeling the heat.

Most victims of hyperthermia are over 50 years old, according to the National Institute on Aging. The most vulnerable seniors are those who are very underweight or overweight, and individuals with illnesses related to the heart, lungs, or kidneys.

Remind the seniors in your life that the following suggestions can lower the risk of heat-related illnesses:

  • Stay indoors
  • Close the shades to keep the temperature down
  • Refrain from turning on the oven
  • Avoid liquids with alcohol or caffeine
  • Increase your intake of liquids, including water and juices
  • Move to a building with air conditioning at midday
  • Avoid crowds
  • Dress in light colors and cool fabrics
  • Lie down and rest; activity raises the body’s temperature
  • Bathe or sponge off using cool water

Another option is to visit your chiropractor. Not only does the cool air conditioning of the chiropractor’s office give patients of all ages some temporary relief, they also get a baseline of overall wellness. Your chiropractor will gauge whether or not the high temperatures are affecting your grandparents’ health, and when they receive advice from a trusted medical practitioner, they are typically more likely to comply.

When it’s the dead of winter, our fantasies about the summer sun seem idyllic, but picnics and pool parties have a dark side when the temperature goes sky high. The problem is growing -- from Arizona hitting 118 degrees to as far north as Vancouver where two-thirds of deaths were among individuals aged 70 or older. Become informed and help those who are in the dark about prevention, symptoms, and treatment of heat-related illnesses.

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