July 30, 2011

USA: How to Keep From Dying Before Your Time

NEW YORK, NY / Forbes / July 27, 2011

Carolyn Rosenblatt

Imagine this.
Carlo Mule, age 83 and his wife, Laura, age 90, living in New York, were a stubborn pair. No matter the temperature, they refused to have air conditioning. Family pleaded with them to no avail.
During a bad heat wave Carlo’s brother, Angelo found them dead on the floor of their home. They both died of hyperthermia.

Every time there’s a severe heat wave, governments send out warnings that elderly are more at risk and should take precautions. Every time, some of them don’t listen. Some die from the heat.

Most of the 400 persons who die each year from extreme heat in the U.S. are elderly. Older persons can’t handle heat as well as younger ones. Their circulation is not as good, they don’t sweat as effectively, and dehydration is a major threat. Confusion and memory loss can add to the risk.

Some older persons ignore heat warnings because they don’t consider themselves “old”. I’m not sure who will admit to being “old”, but it’s not many of the folks I meet. In the business of consulting with families about aging loved ones, I hear this all the time: “later, when I get old”. I recently spoke with a 90 year old whose boomer-aged kids were trying to get her to sit down and have a talk with them about her possible need for care. She thought it would be good to talk about it a while from now, when she got old.

If your city sends out a warning to those in danger during extreme heat and says “especially the elderly”, grandma might think they’re not referring to her. After all, she’s not elderly. At least in her mind, she’s not.

So what can we do?

First of all, we have to understand this denial of aging thing. We all do it. If you will be eligible for Medicare in a few years, does that mean you’re “old”? Of course not, we say to ourselves. We’re boomers! We’re vital and energetic and maybe middle aged, but certainly not old!

Well, our aging parents and grandparents say the same thing to themselves: they’re still getting around, they’re still functioning and “old” means the guy down the street in a wheelchair or someone who can’t get out of bed.

If we get this, we can work around the denial factor and help protect our aging parents and other loved ones. We have to be on the lookout for the dangers and take a few precautions. These efforts can save lives.

Try these things if you are going through a heat wave or another one comes up this summer for your aging parent.

1. Offer to pay for the electricity bill for the heat wave month when it costs so much more to cool the home. Our Depression era aging parents may be always afraid of not having enough money and refuse to turn on the air conditioner, even when it’s 115 degrees (I have a brother like that).

2. Offer to take your aging parent to a movie, to a mall or to another indoor, air conditioned event or a cooling center. Even a few hours a day of cooling can combat the most dangerous effects of extreme heat. If you can’t do it personally, you can get a home helper through an agency to assist you or at least check on your elder daily during the heat wave.

3. Offer to get or have delivered to your aging loved one a load of caffeine-free drinks to keep chilled and on hand for proper hydration. Avoid alcoholic ones, as they dehydrate. Encouraging your aging parent to drink up for protection against heat stroke will apply to everyone, even if you’re not old.

4. Provide, have delivered or offer your elder chilled fruit, such as watermelon (high water content) or low sugar popsicles and other frozen treats. Who can say “no” to a popsicle?

5. Be sure Mom, Dad, or your aging loved one has enough lightweight, cool clothing that’s easy to put on and fasten. Arthritic hands can interfere with using some clothing and your aging parent might not tell you about that. Zippers and Velcro are better than buttons.

6. Urge elders in a closed house without air conditioning to open the windows. When the outside air hits about 90 degrees, a fan won’t help. It gets like a convection oven.

7. If all else fails, try to talk your aging parents into sitting in a cool tub or taking cool showers. It can help bring body temperatures down from dangerous levels. It can literally save a life then and there. A reporting medical expert’s opinion was that covering themselves with cool water could have saved Carlo and Laura Mule.

All of this can apply to persons who are not “old” too. Think of someone you love who is at risk for hyperthermia and do what you can to keep them safe today. There’s a lot of summer left.

Until next time,
Carolyn Rosenblatt

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