News Spotlight

2023-07-17 Spotlight: What’s Hot? Older Adults!

Opinion by Richard T. Moore, former Massachusetts State Senator and Chair Dignity Alliance Massachusetts Legislative Workgroup, July 17, 2023
FYI:  Dignity Digest 145 contains the footnotes for this article.

In the Pacific Northwest, “As records toppled, lives were lost. Early investigations suggest that nearly one thousand people died as a direct result of the Pacific Northwest heat wave. Most of them were older adults.

“In Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, the average age among those who perished was 70. People over 65 accounted for three-quarters of Washington’s deaths,” according to an article published in 2021 by Harvard Medical School.

As the National Institute on Aging reports, “Too much heat is not safe for anyone. It is even riskier if you are older or have health problems. It is important to be cautious and get relief quickly when you are overheated. Otherwise, you might start to feel sick or risk a heat-related illness that could cause serious health issues.”

“It’s not your imagination: It really is hotter than when you were a kid. The nine years from 2013 to 2021 rank among the 10 warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate experts warn that bouts of extreme heat are only going to become more common as global temperatures continue to rise.

That’s bad news for older adults, who are more likely to get sick from heat — even die from it, according to AARP.

“Older adults can’t adjust to sudden temperature changes as fast as younger people. This may happen because of certain medicines they take or chronic illnesses that affect their ability to regulate body temperature. When not treated properly, heat-related illnesses can lead to death. But you can take steps to stay cool during hot weather,” CMS warns. All these experts are telling us that during periods of extreme heat, older adults from age 50 and above, especially those with chronic health issues, need to be concerned. Even the Mass.Gov web site warns that “During prolonged periods of extreme heat, people spending time inside buildings that lack cooling systems (e.g., schools, workplaces, and homes), working outdoors, engaging in outdoor recreational activities, or experiencing homelessness, may all be at risk for excessive heat exposure. During a heat event, people may also be exposed to increased levels of harmful air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, and aeroallergens such as pollen.”

However, that list of facilities of buildings that lack cooling systems fails to mention building that lack cooling systems with significant concentrations of older adults – nursing homes and assisted living facilities. While the state has regulations requiring heating systems in such buildings,only new, or substantially renovated, facilities are required to include air conditioning.  Massachusetts, by most accounts, is getting hotter.

We need to be prepared for this situation to be a regular occurrence, not just the rare heat wave of the past.

While the state has laws and regulations to deal with cold weather, and even offers assistance to residents to improve insulation and help pay heating bills, there isn’t a comparable requirement for dealing with hot weather. Why not require nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior centers to have air conditioning? Why not provide help for residents of homes and apartments to deal with cooling costs? Why not work with our utilities to upgrade the electrical grid to accommodate increased demand during hot weather?

Only 19 states ban utility shut off during the summers.  Massachusetts is not one of them. The Commonwealth only requires new nursing homes or substantially renovated facilities to include air conditioning. A lot of people are talking about climate change, some are working to reduce the causes. However, older adults in, and out, of nursing homes need relief now! We can’t wait for the global warming and climate change issues to be solved. Too many older adults, many from underserved communities, are going to get sick or die from extreme heat if we don’t develop a strategy for protecting people now while we wait for resolving our serious climate issues.