An 80-year-old woman was discovered slumped inside her mobile home in the stifling 99-degree (37 C) heat she endured for days when her air conditioner failed when paramedics were called to a retirement community in Arizona last July.
Her death was found to be caused by ambient heat exposure compounded by heart disease and diabetes after all attempts to revive her failed.
Most of the 77 persons who perished last summer in their houses in the sweltering heat, almost all without air conditioning, were senior folks like the Sun Lakes mobile home resident who lived in America’s hottest metropolitan metropolis.
As global warming creates new difficulties for protecting the elderly, the heat dangers long known in greater Phoenix are becoming well known nationwide.
Health clinics, utilities, and local governments are being tested from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago to North Carolina to keep senior citizens safe when temperatures climb. They establish guidelines for turning off the electricity, specifying when to turn on the building’s air conditioning, and enhancing contact with vulnerable lone residents.
Most heat-related fatalities in the US occur in Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs, which are located in the Sonoran Desert.
The most populous county in Arizona keeps a weekly online track of these fatalities during the six-month hot season from May through October because they occur so frequently.
The first week of April this year saw temperatures already in the mid-90s.
“Phoenix is the model for what we’ll be seeing in other places,” said researcher Jennifer Ailshire, a native of the desert city who is now at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, where she investigates how environmental factors affect health and aging.
“The world is changing quickly, and I worry that we are not moving quickly enough to warn people about the dangers of rising temperatures.”
According to a study from 2021, human-caused global warming is to blame for more than a third of the annual heat-related deaths in the United States.
It discovered more than 1,100 deaths annually from heat-related climate change in 200 U.S. cities, many of which are in the East and Midwest, where people frequently lack air conditioning or are unaccustomed to heat.
A couple in their 80s without known relatives, an 83-year-old woman with dementia living alone after her husband entered hospice care, and a 62-year-old Rwandan refugee whose air conditioner broke down were among the isolated and vulnerable heat victims last year during Maricopa County’s deadliest summer on record.
Even though most of the county’s 378 confirmed heat-related deaths occurred indoors due to isolation, mobility issues, or medical conditions, those who passed away indoors were particularly vulnerable as outdoor summertime highs reached 115 degrees (46.1 C).
Those of color who are older and more prone to chronic illnesses like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure are particularly vulnerable.