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Posted: July 25, 2005

Practical Caregiving

Caution! Heat Waves Are Deadly for the Elderly

The current heat wave gripping the West and Midwest is a stark reminder of how oppressive and deadly the summer can be. And that's just its effect on us, normally healthy adults. Think of the impact on our elderly loved ones. They are very vulnerable. That's where the danger really sinks in.
 
This point has been on the mind of Ginny, even before this latest surge of heat moving west-to-east. I pulled her letter from my emailbag and will use it as an example we all can follow in keeping our loved ones comfortable and healthy through the long, hot summer.
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Dear Jean:
 
I can't get my parents to be reasonable about installing an air conditioner in their home. I have explained how important it is to their health, pleaded with them, begged, shown them prices, and anything else I can think of, but they won't consider installing an air conditioner. I would even be happy with a window air conditioner. It gets hot here in the summer, and I don't want them to die because of the heat.
 
They have put my name on their accounts, but I don't want to do anything against their will. They might take my name off, and then I couldn't take care of things if they needed me to.
 
Do you have any suggestions?
 
Ginny B., Washington, D.C.
 
Dear Ginny:
 
It's so frustrating when you know your parents put themselves in danger by being stubborn, and they won't listen to you. Wouldn't it be nice if they stopped thinking of you as their little girl and realized that you are a grown adult capable of making very good decisions on their behalf? And then actually acted on your advice?
 
My parents didn't want central air, either. I talked, and talked, and talked. Finally, when I told Dad that Mom's health might be in danger from the heat, he grudgingly put one in the house. Then, when I was traveling with Mom and Dad, I had the same problem again. I had to insist we get an air conditioner installed in the trailer. (I pulled Dad's 32-foot  trailer with his Suburban.) We were driving south to Long Beach, California, from Canada, and Long Beach was having a heat wave. He said he would be fine (the reason I was taking care of them was he had already had more than one stroke!). When I brought up the subject of the heat making Mom very ill or even killing her, he agreed to install one.
 
 After we were in the heat, he finally indicated that he was glad we had the air conditioner. Of course, he didn't say he was glad we had it. He just let me know in his own way.
 
A lot of elderly don't like air conditioning. I don't know how much of their feeling that way comes from the way they were raised and how much comes from the cool air itself. It might feel "drafty" to them, but that can be handled by making sure they don't sit directly in front of the cool air. A draft can cause problems, even if it is to keep them cool.
 
Also, have the temperature set so they are comfortable. When someone is elderly or ill, they quite often need to be warmer than you or I want to be. Be reasonable, though. They might need the temperature somewhere 75 degrees, or even a little higher, but not 85 degrees. That's much too high.
 
Is there any health problem that you can use as leverage with them? What about talking to their doctor? He might tell them they are putting their lives in danger without one. Tell you father that it could cause your mother problems. Tell your mother that it could cause your father problems. Until they finally give in, insist that they go to a shopping mall, or some other place that has air conditioning when it is particularly hot. Take them there, if you need to. Use anything you can to get them to agree to put one in.
 
There's something else to consider: Talk to their doctor to find out if their medicines can cause heat-related illnesses. We have all heard and read the facts regarding heat-related illnesses and how to avoid them. This information is in the newspapers and on the Internet every year, but let's go over things again. Your parents might finally listen if you tell them the facts.
 
In 2003, nearly 15,000 people died from the heat in France. Air conditioners are not common in Europe, so they didn't have the option of protecting themselves by staying in cool air. They were mostly older people. The heat wave came during the traditional European vacation month of August, so many caregiver adult children were away and their parents basically suffocated in the heat in their non-air conditioned apartments and homes. It was a national tragedy.
 
People at risk of heat-related illnesses are older people, all people with health problems and impaired mobility, people who take certain medicines, and those who lack air conditioning.
 
To avoid heat-related illnesses, stay cool using fans and air conditioners, drink plenty of fluids and sports drinks, stay in the shade if you are outside, don't exercise in the heat, wear light colors and loose fitting clothes, and avoid alcohol, and perhaps take a cool (not cold) shower or bath.
 
The symptoms of heat-related illness are paleness, muscle aches and cramps, fatigue, dizziness, headache, weakness, nausea or vomiting red skin, hot skin, dry skin, rapid pulse, confusion, high body temperature, and unconsciousness.
 
If you see someone who shows these signs, quickly get them to a cooler place or shady area, have them lie down and rest with slightly elevated feet, refresh them with a cool (not cold) wet wash cloth or shower, check their temperature, call for emergency help if you need it, and do not give them anything with alcohol in it
 
You can also tell them this. I have always had a little trouble with the heat. My sister has suffered heat strokes. When your body has a heat-related illness, you don't get over it in an hour. It takes a while for your body to recover, and you don't feel very good during this period. The length of time to recuperate depends on how severe the heat-related illness becomes. Tell them that you love them and you don't want them to go through that. Explain that they are very important to you and that you want them around for a long time.
 
Good luck -- and keep insisting until they get that air conditioning in their home!

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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Please send me your questions, comments and issues regarding the practical side of caregiving at ASKJEAN@caregivershome.com, and remember to take advantage of our professionals and experts in the Ask an Expert section of our website. You'll find it in the left column on our homepage.

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