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Heat Waves and Elders

category_bug_journal2.gif When, in 2006, I was forced to sell my apartment in Manhattan, I had to decide where to go. Because I considered New York City my natural home (and still do) and had been there for 40 years, it was a difficult choice - no particular place attracted me.

What was easy, however, was to eliminate the entire southern half of the United States. The reason? I hate hot weather. Dry heat is bad enough; hot and humid, for me, is agony.

I am physically miserable in hot weather but worse, my brain stops functioning. I become incapable of useful thought and can't even organize simple household chores that in normal weather I do by rote. Air conditioning does, of course, help but I don't like the feel of air conditioned air – it's clammy and just weird.

My body's response to extreme heat is different these days. In younger years, depending on my level of activity, I sweated over my entire body. Wearing sweat shirts soaked it up and I could get by.

With menopause, something changed. Since then, I hardly ever sweat in that wet-as-a-shower way – at least not on my body. But perspiration pours off the back of head, soaking my hair as much as if I had just washed it.

With temperatures in the uncomfortable three figures for much of the U.S. in recent weeks, it's a good idea to remind ourselves that in old age, we need to take special care because our internal temperature controls don't work as well as in our youth and heat can, in fact, be deadly for us.

In France in August of 2003, during an extreme heat wave, 14,802 heat-related deaths occurred, most of them elders. In the U.S., it is estimated that about 370 deaths a year are attributable to heat, half of them elders. There are precautions we can take.

Even if, like me, you dislike air conditioning, when temperatures hit 80F, it's time to pump up the volume of that appliance. Fans, say experts, don't protect against heat-related illness when temperatures are above 90 degrees; they just push hot air around.

So if you don't have an air conditioner, in the hottest part of the day it good to get yourself to, for example, a mall or go to a movie or the library or visit a friend who has air conditioning for a couple of hours.

If you have air conditioning and have elder friends or neighbors who don't, invite them for a visit in the afternoon. Some other hot weather tips:

• Wear light-colored, loose clothing.

• Drink plenty of liquids and make reminders to yourself to do so. Elders sometimes don't feel thirst (another thing that stops working well with age). One way to know if you are drinking enough water is to check the color of your urine. Light-colored is good; dark indicates dehydration.

• Do not drink caffeinated and alcoholic beverages; they are dehydrating.

• Plan trips out of the house and exercise for the early morning hours.

• Eat light meals that don't need to be cooked. High-water-content foods are good: cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, for example.

• Keep a spray bottle of cold water to help you cool down. Or use a damp, cool towel around your neck.

• Close doors to rooms you are not using to keep cool air from dissipating.

• Medications for high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions can inhibit the body's ability to cool itself, so it might be a good idea to ask your physician if you can cut back during hot weather.

• Pull down the shades during the hottest times of day.

In that regard, I have been quite successful in keeping my home cool during hot weather without the air conditioner. In the morning, when the temperature here in Portland, Oregon is typically in the high 50s and low 60s, I open all the windows. Just yesterday morning, that lowered the indoor temperature from 74F to 65F in 30 minutes.

Here's Ollie the cat taking in the cool, morning air in the window sill.


I keep my eye on the thermometer and when the outside temperature reaches 65F or 70F – usually by late morning - I close the windows and the shades. I haven't needed the air conditioner yet even on 90-plus degree days. It saves a lot of money, too, not using the air conditioner. But to repeat: do turn it on when it is necessary.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body gets too hot. Symptoms are thirst, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, cold and clammy skin, normal or slightly elevated body temperature. Move yourself or someone experiencing this to a cool place, drink cool liquids, take a cool bath or shower and rest.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. It can cause brain damage so get thee or the affected person to a hospital. It occurs when body temperature reaches 104 or 105 in a matter of minutes. Other symptoms include confusion; faintness; strong, rapid pulse; lack of sweating and bizarre behavior. Don't fool around with this.

There now. That's pretty much all you need to know about protecting yourself and others during hot weather. If you want to know more, just google: seniors “hot weather”.

A TGB EXTRA: In the category of age doesn't make you any smarter or nicer than you were when young: at the market yesterday, as I was trying to back out of my space in a crowded parking lot, I was blocked by a car left in a well-marked, no parking zone. The license plate read: GRAMMI. Grrrr.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ann Berger: Everybody's Good For Something


I guess it's easy to surmise that you will not be visiting me in the summer. ;-0)

If you live in Arizona the things you mentioned are practiced by everyone. I do have air conditioning and it isn't clammy when the humidity is low, but right now we are experiencing high humidity and rain showers. It's miserable.

However, I can tolerate 105* easier here than I was able to tolerate 90* in Massachusetts when the humidity matched the temperature.

Your list is a good reminder of things we need to keep in mind in order to take care of ourselves. I know what you mean about the back of your head perspiring. I am grateful for the air conditioning here and we compromise on the temp. Hubby is usually warmer than I am and if he had his way I would be wearing sweats inside every day. Your method of opening windows in early day to allow cool air in and close up the place in afternoon was what we did in southern California. But here in Nebraska it is not cool when we get up, even getting up at 5:00. So the A/C is on all the time the past couple weeks. Like you, I really don't care for A/C but I know it is necessary now. Late fall we will be able to open windows again.

I live in the South, and you are correct about the dangerous heat/humidity. The other health problem a lot of us suffere here is allergies. I don't know a person past 55 that doesn't suffer from some form of allergies. Mine seem to be getting worse the older I get; summer has become a tortured time to just get through. Air conditioning starts in early April, stays on 24/7 till mid-October (expensive!) Grass has to be mown every week, creating endless allergy issues for those of us with that problem.

I've lived here all my life, but I have to say the older I get, the worse the summers have become. All the precautions you listed are taken quite seriously here, including by yours truly, me.

Good, useful post. Thanks. One question: Do you or anyone else remember something about the wisdom of NOT closing off rooms to save on central cooling or heating bills? I used to close off a room or two until years ago I read (perhaps in an envelope stuffer from the local power company) that it is unwise (I forget why). Before I blow off the advice as self-serving by the power company, can someone shed light on this?


I've never heard of such a thing. The only reason I can think of for not closing off or not HEATING a room is if there are pipes within those walls that could freeze in winter.

I have personal experience for four years in Maine of closing off the guest room and not turning on the radiator there unless friends were coming to stay overnight.

That along with some other larger efficiencies reduced my heating fuel bill by two-thirds.

People have been not heating or not cooling unused rooms for hundreds of years. Obviously, I'm no expert, but the only reason I can see for a power company to tell you not to do so is to maintain their revenue.

Ronni and others. I just called my HVAC guy (30 years in the business) and he advised NOT closing off rooms. He says that unless the closed-off room is hermetically sealed with insulation surrounding all walls adjoining the other rooms, the hot or cold air from that room with closed off vents leaks into the rest of the home. This leaking causes the air cooling/heating system to work harder to bring down/up the temperatures desired in the rest of the home. Whew.

Oh I am SO with you in regards to heat and humidity. I think some people are just more affected by weather. After weeks of upper 90s, low 100s with high humidity, with the nights never getting below 80 (no way was I able to open the windows in the morning), I felt like a caged animal and I was going crazy. Finally after a quick but dangerous storm on Sunday, the heat and humidity broke and it felt like a veil had been lifted from my head. Don't know if I'll be able to retire here in the DC area if this keeps up.

There is also a great item out there to keep cool. A light narrow cotton fabric with gel beads inside. You soak it in cold water and the beads absorb the water. You then drape it around your neck. It will stay cool for a couple of days and you don't get the dripping mess of a wet cloth.

Ronni - thank you for this post. Between Tennessee and Kentucky in my new cottage by the woods and the heat and humidity is awful.
I am up by 5:00, work outside in my garden for a couple of hours, run any errands in the morning hours and after lunch - no one sees me.
Your weather sounds delightful.

Yes, I'm blessed with good weather here in Oregon. It was so in Portland, Maine too. There, I had a deck facing the ocean and no matter how hot it got during the day, by late afternoon, the ocean breeze never failed to materialize to cool down the air to the low 60s.

Your HVAC guy is probably talking about central air and heating where there is a thermostat that controls pumped air throughout the house. He is undoubtedly correct about that.

I haven't had central heating/air conditioning in 45 years. Here, I have zoned heating, individual wall heaters each room and one air conditioner in the main room (kitchen, living room, dining, office).

So I'm going to continue closing doors to unused room. In Maine, where I had hot water radiators in each room, it worked wonderfully - that's what the off valve is for - and saved me a couple of hundred dollars a month.

It's the allergies that are getting to me, too & I agree with Cara that with age they've become more troublesome. Additional Vit C does help. The heat has been brutal & even tho' I don't like the a/c, it's become very important to us this year. I've found that keeping it at a constant 75 or 76 degrees, it's been much easier to tolerate. I'm wondering tho' about the utility bill expected next week! Dee

I'm in Philadelphia where weather has been pretty much intolerable for most of the last six weeks. I ordered some "cooling bandanas" from Amazon a couple of weeks ago. (I believe this is what Possumlady is referring to). They have been very helpful when I have to be outside, especially as I store the wet ones in the refrigerator.

I bet Ollie enjoys his window on the world. Hopefully, there are plenty of birds and squirrels to elicit "great hunter" imaginings for him.

Thanks Arlene, yes, that's what I'm talking about. I found some online called Polar Breeze Bandanas.

Also, love the photo of Ollie!!

I'm very comfortable in Hawaii. I always leave everything open to the breezes. I try to avoid going out between 10:00 and 4:00 or so during the day. It can get very warm and humid here, though we never get those 90+ temperatures. I do retreat to my air conditioned office some days in summer for few hours, mostly because of the humidity.
But also, I take a gentle yoga class once a week in the early afternoon! Why? It keeps me fit for the heat. And I think it's a good idea to do this. I sweat all over and therefore don't feel bad when it gets hot.

Your post on heat wave and your menopausal changes hit home with me. I had posted yesterday, 7/27, about heat and the changes I have experienced quite different from yours. Thanks for timely hints. Envying your temperatures!

Ronni - here I am again. Just came inside and my hair is soaking wet and also a sweaty face. My body does not sweat. I am in my 70's and have only noticed this about the last 5 years. What was I doing outside?
I was unloading 2 bags of potting soil out of truck.
I love my new nature home but sometimes the thought - how long will I be able to do physical work I am doing. Most of the time my mind tells me it is good for me. Hope I just drop in the garden:)

I'm laughing at that last line.

Yup, great reminders. I noted mid evening that I'd not been drinking enough water today. Thank you.

I'd like to share another bit of information about the heat. I live in the Chicago area and frequently visit family members in Washington, D.C., so you can imagine how this summer has been going for me. On July 4th I suffered from heat exhaustion after being outdoors for about four hours in 90 degree heat. I had taken an antihistamine in the morning, which I have since learned might have contributed to my heat exhaustion. Just wanted to pass on a word of caution about antihistamines.

My grandmother used to set up a quilt in a frame in the cool basement during the then un-airconditioned summers of the 1960s and 1970s. After lunch she would retreat down there for a few quiet hours of quilting.

I have noticed that I have become less heat-tolerant since my mid-fifties. Whoever started that retiring-to-Florida craze....?

Sometimes when I'm in a hot tub or a hot shower I'll black out. My doctor said it's the quick change of blood pressure.

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