Helping Seniors Cope with Excessively Hot Weather

Periods of excessive heat may only happen a few times a year in the Bay Area, but when they do occur, they can put seniors 65 and older in real danger.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, individuals age 65 and older are one of the most vulnerable groups for heat-related deaths – including heat stroke.

In fact, each year more than 650 people die from heat-related illnesses in the US, all of which are preventable.

The climate in the Bay Area is arguably one of the best in the country, which makes heat waves all the more challenging for those who live here. Many San Francisco and Bay Area homes do not have air conditioning systems, and portable fans may not be enough during excessive heat.

Moreover, San Francisco has the highest percentage of seniors per capita of any California city, with 1 out of every 5 residents as 60 or older (126,000 total). Of those residents, more than 10% struggle with some form of dementia, which means that they are less capable of dealing with challenging weather situations.

The National Weather Service stipulates that the heat index is a combination of temperature and humidity. Typically, the National Weather Service will issue heat advisories when the heat index is above 100 degrees, and an excessive heat warning when it is above 105 degrees. However, in the Bay Area, advisories may be issued below 100 degrees.

During a heat wave, there are some very simple steps that seniors can take (and those who care for them) in order to avoid heat-related distress:

  • Stay indoors, in air-conditioned locations as much as possible. Seek out public facilities such as cooling centers, shopping malls and libraries to stay cool, especially during the late morning to early evening hours.
  • Drink plenty of fluids even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as they can speed up dehydration.
  • Avoid outdoor activities. If you must go outside, wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing and sunscreen. Pace yourself.
  • Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
  • Watch for any signs of heat exhaustion or stroke, such as excessive sweating, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, throbbing headache, muscle cramps or anything else out of the ordinary.
  • Check the local news for health and safety updates.

“When temperatures rise, seniors are more vulnerable to overheating and heatstroke,” says Mary Griffin, Institute on Aging’s Vice President of Home Care and a registered nurse. “As our bodies age, we don’t adjust to sudden change in temperature. Chronic medical conditions change our body’s response to heat and prescription medications can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature or prevent sweating.  For these reasons, it’s important that we check on our loved ones to make sure they are staying hydrated, cool and comfortable.”

If you know a senior that could be vulnerable during a heat wave and has no caregiver or means to seek out help, call the Institute on Aging’s CONNECT line at 415-750-4111 to ask for advice. In you suspect a senior is in danger due to excessive heat and needs emergency assistance, call 911.

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