Heat waves are never easy, but they’re particularly brutal in urban areas. Pavement and metal trap the heat, so cities may be as much as 10 degrees hotter than suburbs. Hot weather can increase everyone’s risk for heat exhaustion and dehydration, but it’s especially dangerous for seniors, who may not be as aware of changes in body temperature. The body’s ability to cool itself diminishes with age, and conditions that can cause heat cramps in a teen may lead to heat exhaustion in a 40-year-old and heat stroke in someone over 60.
Fortunately, keeping older adults safe and healthy during hotter weather is manageable when you follow these simple tips:
Setting an air conditioner to 78°F is the best way to avoid heat-related illness, but not all city apartments are air-conditioned, and air conditioners may break down or not perform well during extreme temperatures. It’s very important to make sure air conditioner filters are changed or cleaned frequently. Filters can trap allergens such as pollutants, mold spores, pollen, and dust. When the unit is turned on, these particles are blown through the air and can cause breathing problems.
If your loved one doesn’t own an air conditioner, open windows, but pull shades as low as possible to keep out the sun and leave fans running at night to draw in cool air.
Recent research indicates that it isn’t just the high temperatures that make heat waves so dangerous. Higher temperatures often go hand in hand with higher levels of air pollution. Smog, ozone, and even smoke from forest fires can make it difficult to breathe and may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Weather apps and forecasts often track air quality index, so you can take steps to limit outdoor activities that may cause breathing problems.
One of the most important ways to maintain health during the summer is by staying hydrated. Have plenty of liquids on hand, but if your family member has heart, kidney, or liver disease, check with their physician about how much is safe. In addition to drinking water, eat foods containing water, such as fruits, vegetables, gelatin (Jell-O), and ice pops.
Though your appetite may decrease in summer months, it is important to continue to eat well. Be sure your daily meals contain protein (lean meats, like chicken and fish) and complex carbohydrates (vegetables and whole grains). Eat small, frequent meals to keep up your strength.
Take frequent lukewarm (not cold) baths and showers to keep your body temperature from rising too high. Be sure that the bathtub has a slip-resistant mat or safety bars to prevent slips and falls.
Hiring a home health aide can provide peace of mind for family members, and regular home visits offer welcome companionship when excessive heat keeps you inside for long periods of time. At the very least, be sure to have a neighbor or friend check in on a loved one periodically to make sure they are okay.
The hottest time of the day is between 10 AM and 2 PM. Avoid cooking or spending time outdoors during this period. If you must leave the house during a heat wave, wear loose, light-colored clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Always keep a fresh bottle of water in the refrigerator and bring it with you when you go out.
Visit your local library, shopping center, movie theater, community center, or anyplace with air conditioning. When the heat index is dangerously high, New York City opens cooling centers. Call 311 (TTY: 212-504-4115) or go to http://gis.nyc.gov/oem/cc/index.htm during a heat emergency to find a cooling center nearby. Tip: Libraries, senior centers, and community centers often serve as cooling centers during heat waves.