Keeping Vulnerable Older Adults Safe During Extreme Heat Alerts

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When does a heat alert become extreme? The City of Toronto Heat Alert System defines an Extreme Heat Alert as, “when forecast weather conditions suggest that the likelihood of a high level of mortality is at least 50 percent greater than what would be expected on a typical day”. Health Canada warns that some older adults may be at increased risk because of chronic illnesses, impaired thermoregulatory systems, medications that affect the individual’s cooling mechanisms, social isolation, lower literacy and poverty.

Older adults who do not have air conditioning are particularly at risk. The Medical Health Officer of Toronto’s Protecting vulnerable people from health effects of extreme heat report explains that most of the older apartment buildings in the city do not have central air conditioning and many occupants may experience financial strain if they installed a window air conditioner.

As an alternative many individuals without air conditioning use fans. The Toronto Public Health ‘fan facts’ cautions that fans may make you hotter and offers these fan do’s and don’ts and other ways to keep cool:

  • Do use your fan in or next to a window to bring in the cooler air from outside or blow warm air outside
  • Do measure the air temperature inside your home to help you use your fan correctly.
  • Do use a fan to blow air on yourself when the indoor air temperature is less than 34 degrees Celsius. You can cool the air by placing a bowl of ice in front of the fan.
  • Don’t believe that fans cool air. They do not. Fans just move the air around. Fans keep you cool by bringing in cooler air from the outside, moving air over your skin (if the air is cool) or by helping to evaporate your sweat.
  • Don’t use a fan in a closed room unless you know the air temperature in that room is less than 34 degrees Celsius.
  • Don’t use a fan to blow hot or warm air on yourself (34 degrees Celsius or more). This can cause heat illness to happen faster. This is especially a concern for older adults and people taking certain medications since their ability to sweat is decreased.
  • Don’t rely on fans as the only way to keep cool.

Important things to do to keep yourself and your home cool, in addition to using a fan:

  • Take cool showers or mist yourself with cool water.
  • Drink lots of cold fluids, especially water, even when you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Close your blinds and curtains to block out the sun during the day.
  • Open your window to let cooler air from the outside in.
  • Avoid using your oven to cook meals since this can make your home hotter.

Toronto Emergency Medical Services points out that some individuals may be afraid to open their window to use a fan and suggests going to air conditioned places such as shopping malls, libraries, community centres or a friend’s place to stay cool.

How can we ensure that vulnerable older adults remain safe during Extreme Heat Alerts? Toronto Public Health suggests, “During a Heat Alert, the public is encouraged to call or visit family, friends and neighbours, especially isolated adults and seniors who are at greater risk of suffering from heat-related illness, to make sure they are cool and drinking plenty of fluids”.

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