Feeling the Heat: The Impact of Extreme Heat on Older Adults
Recent forest fires in California, Greece and Australia; unprecedented flooding in Germany and China; extreme heat waves in Canada and the US Pacific Northwest; and severe droughts in Central Brazil and Asia all point to the fact that we are in the midst of a global climate crisis. In a recent UN Climate Science Report the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the first time released predictions on the likelihood of extreme weather events across a variety of scenarios.
While predictions varied greatly across these scenarios the message was clear, extreme weather events are expected to increase in both frequency and severity. Heat waves have shown a stronger increase in frequency than all other extreme events. Whereas heatwaves would at one time occur twice in a century they are now likely to happen every five to six years with 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The UN Climate report projects this increase could be surpassed within two decades.
The implications of extreme heat are significant, and the evidence has been strikingly clear that extreme heat disproportionately affects the lives of older people. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article in June, addressed the most recent heatwave experienced in Western Canada a staggering 570 deaths were ruled “heat related.” More than 3 in 4 deaths (79%) were Canadian seniors.
"I don't think anybody in the province, from the public health officials to the general public, really understood that we may see over 500 deaths in a week due to the heat. We have never seen something like that in this province. Not that I'm aware of in the last 30 years doing this kind of work. Absolutely unprecedented." -- Lisa Lapointe, Chief Coroner, British Columbia
This unprecedented loss of life has led to increased calls for government action and planning in advance of future heat waves. In New Brunswick, Mr Alphonse Dionne, President of the Senior Citizens Federation has voiced particular concern for older adults who are living in rural and remote communities where there are fewer services and locations to escape the heat.
"I think a lot of people are still not taking this as seriously as they should. The planet is changing and it's changing fast." -- Mr Dionne, President of the Senior Citizens Federation, New Brunswick
Social isolation is also a significant concern and can increase the risk for older adults facing heat waves. According to Dr Lisa Lapointe the majority of older adults who lost their lives during the June heatwave were found alone in their homes, underscoring the urgent need to investigate the endemic nature of ageism while calling for improved policies and funded programs for older people facing social isolation and loneliness.
According to Dr Jennifer Baumbusch, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing current public health messaging and warnings about the heat are falling woefully short of acceptable. The failure to address the significant risks posed to older adults and make available key information on when individuals should be seeking help must be a priority.
While there are no simple solutions to addressing a climate that is radically changing, planning and preparedness must focus on those most at risk, including older adults. Policy considerations include access to public services and locations where air conditioning is available, the provision of air conditioning units in rural and remote settings and in low income settings, ensuring that older adults who live alone are identified and supported, and older adults and those living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease etc. are aware of and have access to reliable and timely guidance regarding how to mitigate risk, is crucial to avoiding further loss of life.
To learn more about climate change and the impact on older adults connect with IFA expert Dr. Lucie Vidovićová.