BY CONNIE McDOUGALL
Northwest weather has a fairly boring, if pleasant, reputation: Temperate, except for a few 90-degree days in the summer, maybe a short stretch of cold in the winter. The main complaint has always been about clouds and rainfall.
But not last year.
Between June 26 and July 2, 2021, the Pacific Northwest experienced record-breaking hot temperatures. On a day when it was 106-degrees in Phoenix, Seattle hit an all-time high of 108, with some cities east of Lake Washington recording 110. Near Forks on the Olympic Peninsula, it rose to a scorching 118.
We’re just not ready for that kind of heat, but we should be if hot weather becomes more common. With fewer than half the homes in the Seattle area equipped with air conditioners, many older residents struggle to stay cool. People in retirement or assisted-living communities likely have air-conditioning as well as well-being checks from staff. “But a solid majority are not in a care setting and are home by themselves,” says Dr. Wayne McCormick, division head of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “They may be getting by okay in their regular routines, but extreme weather is outside of that.”
It’s not just about discomfort. During last summer’s heat wave in Washington State, at least 100 people—mostly older adults—died from heat-related illness.
At the time, Dr. McCormick saw patients who had come through the emergency room at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. “It’s always busy but there was a noticeable increase in patients. We saw lots of people of all ages, but older people are especially vulnerable,” he says. “They came in with heat exhaustion and heat stroke, including prostration, where people just can’t move. With body temperatures of 104- or 105-degrees, they clearly were not able to cool themselves, so we put them in an ice bath, and gave cold fluids via a tube down the nose and into the stomach. Getting temperature down a couple of degrees is all you need to get out of the danger zone.”
Older adults are at higher risk for a number of reasons including a lack insulating fat under the skin, a decreased ability to regulate body temperature and hydration levels. They also may be taking medications like diuretics that can cause dehydration.
But age isn’t the only criteria, explains Dr. Scott Lindquist, a practicing physician and an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “Kids under the age of four are also vulnerable, as are people with underlying conditions such as heart and lung conditions, and obesity,” he says. “It’s about being able to withstand extreme temperatures. With an increase in temperature, the heart beats faster, it’s harder to breathe, so underlying conditions are a major factor on how someone copes with heat.”
Ways to stay comfortable and safe
Fortunately, there’s plenty we can do to stay comfortable and safe during extreme weather.
“It’s not easy to treat once the body overheats so it’s all about prevention,” says Dr. Lindquist.
For starters, know the symptoms of overheating, especially dehydration. “Look for lethargy, a lack of energy, a dry mouth, thirst, dizziness, a decrease in or concentration of urine. A sure sign of dehydration is weight loss,” he says.
“It’s not like flipping a switch,” says Dr McCormick. “It sneaks up on you. You may feel a little crummy, then really crummy, and it keeps getting worse until it’s a medical emergency.”
So, a priority is avoiding dehydration at all costs. “It’s critical to drink fluids throughout the day,” says Dr. Lindquist.
With hydration taken care of, find ways to cool the body. Having air conditioning is obviously a plus, but sitting in front of a fan with a wet towel over the shoulders can help cool the body, says Dr. McCormick, “as long as you compensate for the evaporation of sweat by drinking more fluids.”
A tepid shower also cools the body. If it’s cooler at night and you can do so safely, open windows to let the hot air out.
Another option for some folks is to visit a local cooling center. Dian Ferguson, executive director of the Central Area Senior Center, welcomed hundreds of people during last summer’s heat wave. “It started off slow but as it got hotter, more people came in,” she recalls. “Our dining area is our largest room and has air conditioning. We offered water, Safeway donated ice cream and other groups gave us box fans.”
It was so comfortable, some people stayed until they closed at 6. “We had a section for card players, a quiet section for book readers, an area for knitters,” she says. “It’s a good place of refuge and people make friends here. I always say the center is like a Boys and Girls Club for adults.”
Keri Pollock, who works for the geriatric-care management practice, Aging Wisdom, has another method to beat the heat. “I put a pillowcase in a Ziplock bag in the freezer then pull it out at bedtime. It might sound funny, but it really works. We also advise our clients to avoid using the stove or oven during a heat wave and rely on the microwave or foods that don’t need cooking,” she said. “Eat salads and melons that have a lot of water in them and make water tastier with lemon or lime.”
Pollock also suggests organizing a “go bag” in case you have to leave home due to a heat emergency or any unanticipated event. Contents should include lists of contacts, including doctors, medications, important papers, device chargers and personal items, such as change of clothing, glasses and other essentials.
Another idea: Prepare in the off season. “Have a working fan, and if you have air conditioning, make sure it’s in working order before demand is high so you don’t have to wait for service,” she adds.
Perhaps most important, friends and family members must check on older loved ones. Pollack believes “If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we need that community.”
Connie McDougall is a former news reporter and current freelance writer of nonfiction and personal essays. She lives in Seattle.