Australia’s number one natural killer is not floods, cyclones, bushfires or storms – in fact, heat stress has claimed the lives of more people than all of those disasters combined.
A team of Macquarie University lecturers analysed records dating back more than 160 years and found that: “Since 1900, extreme heat events have been responsible for more deaths in Australia than the combined total of deaths from all other natural hazards (barring disease epidemics).”
The main at-risk groups include the elderly, mentally unwell and lower socio-economic groups, which is why it is vital during the sizzling Australian summer to keep the home cool, dress in appropriate clothing and to stay well hydrated. The reason in simple: dehydration diminishes the body’s ability to regulate temperature and the risk of developing a heat illness rises dramatically.
When we age, our bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature – people over 65 don’t sweat as much as younger adults, which unfortunately is one of the body’s most important heat-regulation mechanisms. As the temperature rises, so too does the internal body temperature, especially when there is exposure to the sun or extremely hot environments and is the primary reason why older people suffer from heat stroke more often than younger people throughout the summer and need to ensure that they stay hydrated.
Early warning signs of heat exhaustion, which may precede the more serious heat stroke, include excessive sweating, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache and muscle cramps. Then as exhaustion progresses, symptoms may progress to nausea, vomiting and fainting.
According to the Western Australian Department of Health, there are many measures which can be taken to ensure older people are kept as safe as possible from the Australian heat.
- Arrange to check on an older person twice a day if you can during extreme heat, especially if he/she lives alone. If possible, do not rely on just talking on the phone, as you need to be able to make sure they are drinking enough water and assess any changes to their physical condition.
- Make sure the older person has a phone which will work during a power failure. If an older person seems to be suffering from heat stress, they need to be cooled down immediately. Use cool baths, showers, or place cool, wet towels on their neck and underarms.
- Call a doctor or an ambulance if an older person’s condition does not improve within an hour after taking steps to cool them down, or if they have any heat related symptoms that are causing concern.
- People caring for others also need to look after themselves in extreme heat, or they put at risk their own health as well as their ability to care for others.
- Encourage the older person to use fans or air conditioning if it is hot in their house. It is important to check it is set to cool before turning it on.
- Close curtains to aid in cooling the house down.
- Look into what concessions are available on energy bills, as some older people are worried about using their air conditioning because of the costs.
- Visiting air conditioned local libraries or shopping centres can offer some relief for an older person during extreme heat.
- Make sure all frozen food is kept in a cooler bag from the shopping centre to home.
- Ensure the gutter and backyard is free of leaves and debris if the home is at risk of fire.
Encourage the older person to take simple steps to keep cool such as:
- rinsing a cloth in cool water and using it to wipe their arms and neck;
- sleeping with just a sheet over them;
- putting their feet in a bowl of cool water;
- making ice cubes from water or cordial and sucking them to keep cool; and/or
- putting a bowl of ice cubes in front of a fan to create a cool breeze.
To find out more information about getting the right support and care for your elderly loved ones, especially in the summer months ahead, contact Oxley Home Care on 1800 221 039, oxleyhomecare.com.au
More information from the Department of Health on seniors staying safe in the warmer months can be found here.