Whether or not you believe in global warming, every year there are deadly heat waves across the U.S. Many of those who succumb to the heat are seniors. Some cities have annual initiatives to make sure low-income seniors have fans in their homes and some cities offer cooling centers, air-conditioned venues that are open during the day free of charge for people who want to escape the heat.
No one should die from the heat because they can’t afford a fan, air conditioning, or are afraid of running up their electricity bills on a fixed budget. But a HealthCentral article I read by Carol Bursack pointed out another reason that is not often discussed.
Bursack told a story about her mother-in-law, who turned off the air conditioning she had in her condo every day after Bursack would visit and turn it on to a low setting just to keep the air circulating. This was in the middle of a heat wave, and Bursack would discover every window shut, the A/C turned off and it would be sweltering inside. When she discovered her mother-in-law suffering serious disorientation symptoms from the heat, she knew her days of independent living were coming to an end.
Bursack’s story reminded me of my mother. In her case, it was the heat during winter. My parents retired to a mountain town that usually receives a decent amount of snow and the temperatures often drop into the 20s and 30s overnight in the winter. Mom would insist on turning off the heat every night before going to bed, then getting up in the middle of the night, shivering, to turn it back on for a few minutes, then turning it off again until the morning. This was totally nuts to me. Mom thought she was saving energy (and perhaps Bursack’s mother thought the same thing) but keeping a home at a steady, moderate temperature is most efficient. So yes, by all means, turn down the heat when you will be bundled under the covers overnight, but don’t turn it off!
Mom also insisted, even on the most frigid of nights, in leaving the windows in the living room and bedrooms open a crack, because she thought she’d suffocate or die of carbon monoxide poisoning if she closed everything. Of course, this caused the furnace to have to work more and threw the whole energy-efficient argument out the window.
As a caregiver, I had to pick my battles. I never convinced Mom to close the windows, but by using a bit of reverse psychology, one night, she mentioned that it might be nice to just keep the heat on through the night, and I told her that was an excellent idea. From then on, she didn’t turn off the heat overnight.
The point here is that even if your elder loved one has access to fans or air conditioning, check to make sure they are actually using them. Whether they are just set in their ways or are beginning to develop dementia, we cannot take the use of such things for granted.
[Addendum: Just after I wrote this post, I went to stay at what was my parents’ condo for 2 weeks. The condo doesn’t have air conditioning, because it’s located in a mountain town where the average temperature this time of year is around 80. Not this year … it’s been in the 90s and hit 93 yesterday. I’m dealing with a summer cold on top of the heat, with only fans to offer relief, and it’s pretty miserable. I’ll be fine, but I’m 42. In 20-30 years, this situation might be more of a health risk.]