Some groups of seniors, including people over 75, people with a pre-existing medical condition and those with a disability are particularly vulnerable to the extreme heat, and it’s important that we look after older people in summer.
More people die during extreme heat. In the 2009 Victorian heatwave the number of deaths increased by 374 people. Almost 80 per cent of them were over 65. It is very easy to become dehydrated during extreme heat which can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Heatstroke is a medical emergency which can result in permanent damage to your vital organs, or even death, if not treated immediately. However, there are steps we can take to minimise the risk of deaths due to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
There are various reasons some seniors are vulnerable in extreme heat; your skin is not able to sweat and cool the body as efficiently as it used to, some chronic medical problems make the body more vulnerable to heat stress, and certain medication can hinder your body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
With heatwaves becoming a regular feature of the Victorian summer, it’s important to plan ahead and consider how you can look after yourself and others when the extreme heat hits. Every year, I think about ways that I can minimise risk for myself, and for my friends and family around me.
For example, you could postpone outings or schedule activities such as watering the garden in the coolest part of the day. If you must go out, take a bottle of water with you. It is important you drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Of course you should talk to your doctor first however, if you are on limited fluid intake or fluid reducing medications.
You can keep your home cool by drawing the blinds and turning on a fan or air-conditioner. It might even help to take cool (not cold) showers during the day if you’re still feeling hot as long as you’re safe doing this by yourself, and to be sure to dress in light and loose clothing made from natural fabrics. Another good way to keep cool is to put a wet towel around you – this is one of my personal favourites.
As a community, I also encourage you to check on older neighbours, family and friends during days of extreme heat - one easy way of doing this is by picking up the phone for a quick call. But more important than anything else, if you or anyone you know feels unwell on a hot day call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24, or call 000 if you suspect symptoms of heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
For more tips about coping in the heat keep an ear out for updates on the radio and visit the Better Health Channel at www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au.
Commissioner for Senior Victorians
Gerard Mansour is a passionate advocate for the rights and needs of older Victorians, with more than 25 years’ experience working in the aged and wider community service sectors. He has contributed significantly to policy development and implementation for myriad services assisting senior Victorians. Go to Gerard's home page.