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Heat Waves and Elders

Posted Jul 28 2010 5:35am

category_bug_journal2.gif When, in 2006, I was forced to sell my apartment in Manhattan, I had to decide where to go. Because I considered New York City my natural home (and still do) and had been there for 40 years, it was a difficult choice - no particular place attracted me.

What was easy, however, was to eliminate the entire southern half of the United States. The reason? I hate hot weather. Dry heat is bad enough; hot and humid, for me, is agony.

I am physically miserable in hot weather but worse, my brain stops functioning. I become incapable of useful thought and can't even organize simple household chores that in normal weather I do by rote. Air conditioning does, of course, help but I don't like the feel of air conditioned air – it's clammy and just weird.

My body's response to extreme heat is different these days. In younger years, depending on my level of activity, I sweated over my entire body. Wearing sweat shirts soaked it up and I could get by.

With menopause, something changed. Since then, I hardly ever sweat in that wet-as-a-shower way – at least not on my body. But perspiration pours off the back of head, soaking my hair as much as if I had just washed it.

With temperatures in the uncomfortable three figures for much of the U.S. in recent weeks, it's a good idea to remind ourselves that in old age, we need to take special care because our internal temperature controls don't work as well as in our youth and heat can, in fact, be deadly for us.

In France in August of 2003, during an extreme heat wave, 14,802 heat-related deaths occurred, most of them elders. In the U.S., it is estimated that about 370 deaths a year are attributable to heat, half of them elders. There are precautions we can take.

Even if, like me, you dislike air conditioning, when temperatures hit 80F, it's time to pump up the volume of that appliance. Fans, say experts, don't protect against heat-related illness when temperatures are above 90 degrees; they just push hot air around.

So if you don't have an air conditioner, in the hottest part of the day it good to get yourself to, for example, a mall or go to a movie or the library or visit a friend who has air conditioning for a couple of hours.

If you have air conditioning and have elder friends or neighbors who don't, invite them for a visit in the afternoon. Some other hot weather tips:

• Wear light-colored, loose clothing.

• Drink plenty of liquids and make reminders to yourself to do so. Elders sometimes don't feel thirst (another thing that stops working well with age). One way to know if you are drinking enough water is to check the color of your urine. Light-colored is good; dark indicates dehydration.

• Do not drink caffeinated and alcoholic beverages; they are dehydrating.

• Plan trips out of the house and exercise for the early morning hours.

• Eat light meals that don't need to be cooked. High-water-content foods are good: cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, for example.

• Keep a spray bottle of cold water to help you cool down. Or use a damp, cool towel around your neck.

• Close doors to rooms you are not using to keep cool air from dissipating.

• Medications for high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions can inhibit the body's ability to cool itself, so it might be a good idea to ask your physician if you can cut back during hot weather.

• Pull down the shades during the hottest times of day.

In that regard, I have been quite successful in keeping my home cool during hot weather without the air conditioner. In the morning, when the temperature here in Portland, Oregon is typically in the high 50s and low 60s, I open all the windows. Just yesterday morning, that lowered the indoor temperature from 74F to 65F in 30 minutes.

Here's Ollie the cat taking in the cool, morning air in the window sill.


I keep my eye on the thermometer and when the outside temperature reaches 65F or 70F – usually by late morning - I close the windows and the shades. I haven't needed the air conditioner yet even on 90-plus degree days. It saves a lot of money, too, not using the air conditioner. But to repeat: do turn it on when it is necessary.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body gets too hot. Symptoms are thirst, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, cold and clammy skin, normal or slightly elevated body temperature. Move yourself or someone experiencing this to a cool place, drink cool liquids, take a cool bath or shower and rest.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. It can cause brain damage so get thee or the affected person to a hospital. It occurs when body temperature reaches 104 or 105 in a matter of minutes. Other symptoms include confusion; faintness; strong, rapid pulse; lack of sweating and bizarre behavior. Don't fool around with this.

There now. That's pretty much all you need to know about protecting yourself and others during hot weather. If you want to know more, just google: seniors “hot weather”.

A TGB EXTRA: In the category of age doesn't make you any smarter or nicer than you were when young: at the market yesterday, as I was trying to back out of my space in a crowded parking lot, I was blocked by a car left in a well-marked, no parking zone. The license plate read: GRAMMI. Grrrr.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ann Berger: Everybody's Good For Something

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