How Can We Keep Older People Safe In The Heat?

Michele Norris speaks with Kim Kristensen, a nurse at Independent Living in Madison, Wis., about looking after the elderly in the heat. In the Midwest, a "heat dome" has settled over the area. It started three days ago and is slowly moving eastward.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Temperatures in the high 90s with humidity that makes it feel even hotter: It's a normal forecast for mid-July in much of the country. What's not normal is just how long it's lasted in the Midwest. Something called a heat dome has settled over the area. It started three days ago, and it's slowly moving eastward. In some places, it's so hot that asphalt has been buckling and some fire alarms have been triggered.

Kim Kristensen works in Madison, Wisconsin. She's been checking in with one group of people particularly at risk during this heat wave, the elderly. She's a nurse at a nonprofit organization called Independent Living in Madison, and she joins us now from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Ms. Kristensen, thanks so much for coming in. Did you walk here to the studio? How hot must you be?

Ms. KIM KRISTENSEN (In-Home Care Nurse, Independent Living, Wisconsin): Well, I walked in from the parking ramp, and it is very hot out there, so I'm kind of sweating and dripping right now.

NORRIS: You've been out making home visits this week? What are you finding? How are the elderly holding up out there?

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Our clients are holding up pretty good out there. The one client that we are really worried about is the elderly population who, unfortunately, don't have any assistance. And that's a good thing because they're independent at home, but they're still very much at risk in this hot weather. Heat really can affect the elderly, and they really don't know that it's affecting them sometimes.

NORRIS: And I imagine you have in mind that heat wave from the mid-1990s, where several people died in Chicago, in Milwaukee, other places throughout the Midwest.

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Yeah. I believe there were 700 deaths due to heat-related illnesses, and 55 percent of those were over the age of 65.

NORRIS: What did you learn from that? What are the lessons after that?

Ms. KRISTENSEN: I guess we have to start thinking about heat waves just like a tornado or a tsunami or something like that because it is very, very detrimental.

NORRIS: How hot is it there right now? I was looking at a heat index map throughout the Midwest, and there are some places where the heat index is 120, 122 degrees.

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Well, right now in Madison, it's 94 degrees. We are projected to get up to 99 or 100 degrees today, and possibly up to 120 heat index.

NORRIS: And is the humidity a factor there? You're sitting on a lake in Madison - actually an isthmus, in between two lakes.

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Oh, it's very humid out, rained the last couple of days, on and off, so the humidity level is like between 60 and 80 percent. So when you step outside, it's actually like stepping into a great big water bubble.

NORRIS: If someone is listening to this, they're in a place where they don't have air-conditioning, are there things that you recommend, ways that you can raise the windows, for instance, to create a little bit of air circulation in a dwelling?

Ms. KRISTENSEN: I would definitely have a fan going, have your curtains pulled. Go to a mall. Go to your local senior center. Go to one of the emergency centers that are open specifically because of this heat wave.

NORRIS: Are you encouraging people to be neighborly, to watch over people that they know are living alone and might not have air-conditioning?

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Well, if you know of a senior that's in your block or just down the neighborhood, go knock on the door, say hi, introduce yourself, see if they're OK. Just be friendly.

NORRIS: What should seniors do to make sure that they stay cooler or stay irrigated? I understand that drinking lots of water is very important right now.

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Yeah, lots of water. But the one thing, I think, that people forget is that when you're sweating and it's so hot like this, you also lose a lot of electrolytes because you sweat. So I would drink some, like, Gatorade, juice. Just make sure you drink lots of fluids and make sure you replace your electrolytes also.

NORRIS: Are there things that you should avoid, that just add to your discomfort and the heat?

Ms. KRISTENSEN: Anything with caffeine in it, which includes your coffee and pop. You know, stay away from alcohol. Alcohol is very dehydrating. And for every cup of coffee you drink, you need to drink at least two or three glasses of water.

NORRIS: That's Kim Kristensen. She is an in-home care nurse in Madison, Wisconsin. She's been checking in with the elderly in the midst of the Midwestern heat wave.

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