Sunday, July 3, 2022

Heat waves are ‘life or death’ for elderly on the Southside

SOUTHSIDE — With heat and humidity climbing across the Tidewater area, you might find yourself cranking the air conditioner. You might also want to check on your elderly neighbor or relative, since they’re susceptible to a range of illnesses that heave waves can trigger, including heat stroke.

“Older people die [in heat]. It’s really life or death,” said Michael Deschenes, chair and professor of integrated health sciences at the College of William & Mary.

Combined, the cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk have about 69,200 residents who are age 65 or older, according to the 2010 census. Older residents are candidates for heat-related illnesses for a number of reasons, Deschanes said.

Older people are slower to pick up on cues that their core temperature is increasing, according to Deschenes. That means they’re slower to respond with steps like fanning themselves.

“They just don’t know they’re getting warmer on the inside,” added Deschenes. “So they just don’t take the measures you and I would.”

Also, the body cools itself by sweating and by increasing blood flow to the skin, but in older people, those mechanisms are not as fast and efficient, Deschenes said.

“Some of them already have heart problems … which makes it harder for blood to circulate to dissipate heat,” said Larry Hill, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Health. “Some of them have to take drugs like Diuretics, which cause water loss and, during hot times, they get dehydrated quicker.

Other senior-specific issues can compound those problems.

“Some can’t venture far from home so they stay home,” Hill added. “But when they do, for security reasons, they’re less inclined to open windows for circulation.”

During the weekend of Aug. 13-14, 2016, there were 154 emergency room and urgent-care visits statewide related to heat exposure, heat exhaustion, heat stroke or heat cramps, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s website.

About 38 percent of those emergency room visits were adults between the ages of 50 and 69. Children and adolescents aged 10-19 logged about 9 percent of those visits overall.

Regardless of your age, experts recommend basic precautions to deal with summer swelter.

“Number one is always check on them [the elderly],” Hill said. “Second thing is make sure they’re drinking fluids, preferably water, not soda or alcohol. The best piece of advice is to stay in the coolest place possible and avoid activity.”

The Virginia Department of Social Services offers assistance to the elderly, including purchase and installation of window AC units, to those over 60. The Hampton Roads chapter of the Salvation Army offers emergency funding for seniors who are unable to pay their electric bills so they can keep their AC on.

Local municipalities have opened libraries and other public buildings to use as cooling centers during heat waves in the past.

For more information about preventing heat-related illnesses, check this fact sheet from the American Red Cross and visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control.

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