When it comes to heat stress, people often find it hard to admit their vulnerability, and ignore warnings.
This summer has seemed as brutally hot as the winter was snowy. The National Weather Service’s preliminary data stated record highs July 7 in Georgetown and Wilmington, and with multiple days reaching 90 or above locally, air conditioners and fans have been running overtime.
When the summer warms up, warnings are often issued for the elderly to be especially cautious. Researchers at Kent State University, however, have found that some elderly do not see themselves as fitting that label, and neglect to heed heat warnings.
Researchers also stated that age is not the only predictor to heat stress — vulnerability is a key factor that many ignore.
Vulnerability depends on situation, not just age
Vulnerability is something that’s difficult to admit to at any age, according to Michael Serfass, public health nurse for the Division of Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities.
“People don’t like to see themselves as vulnerable, it’s really easy to dismiss your vulnerability. That’s where I think there’s a large piece of why this happens,” he said.
Medical conditions and behaviors can put anyone at risk. For example, a 32-year-old on blood pressure medication who is jogging in 95-degree weather may be at higher risk for heat stress than a 65-year-old on the same medication — and then some — who is relaxing in the air conditioning.
Sometimes the person in his or her 60s is better at managing risks, Serfass said.
The reluctance to admit vulnerability does not surprise Cindy Zator, community service representative for Home Instead Senior Care. She said people don’t think of themselves as being their age.
“That’s the consensus I get all the time,” she said.
Home Instead services approximately 90 clients in Delaware, acting as home helpers for non-medical care. Zator said when people see the company’s brochure says “senior care,” they turn away.
Instead of pushing the issue, Zator asks if people would like to take a brochure for a friend or neighbor. It gives them time to think about possibly asking for help without putting the spotlight on them.
Cate Lyons, marketing director of the Modern Maturity Center, said she’s also not surprised to hear the older generation doesn’t follow heat guidelines. For them, it can be a matter of pride. They didn’t grow up with air conditioning, and they feel as if they don’t need it.
She did note, however, that when it heats up outside, some people would rather take the MMC bus instead of driving to destinations; it means getting into a cool bus instead of a hot car. They also tend to stay longer at the center.
“We get the same amount of people, but they’re not so quick to rush right out after lunch,” Lyons said.
Older population, more risk factors
Older people are not at risk because of their age, but because of the potential issues that come with it. Medical conditions such as lung, kidney or heart disease may be in effect and making them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. They also may be taking more medications, including diuretics that are often used to help treat high blood pressure, and cause the patient to urinate frequently.
Some older people don’t drink a lot, Serfass explained, and tend to live more in a state of dehydration. That combined with diuretics can be a bad combination.
“If you’re dehydrated, the heat is going to affect you more because you can’t sweat and you can’t blow off the heat,” he said.
The elderly often don’t notice the heat as much as their younger counterparts, and don’t regulate their body temperatures properly.
For instance, Serfass has seen elderly patients barely able to catch their breath because of the heat, but not think to take off a sweater or open the windows to cool off.
Zator suggests making sure seniors are being safe in the heat by dropping in to say hello, not necessarily to talk about safety.
Serfass said block captains can use that title as an excuse to stop by and see how older or ill neighbors are doing.
For more information on how the older population can stay healthy in the heat, call the Division of Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities Resource Center at 800-223-9074.
Email Sarika Jagtiani at firstname.lastname@example.org