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City warns elderly of heat wave

Fri., July 21, 2006

No matter how hot it gets this weekend, Alberta Frederick won’t turn on her air conditioner.

The 83-year-old Spokane Valley resident learned her lesson last summer, when a spell of warm weather spiked her electric bill to $98 – nearly a quarter of her monthly expendable income.

So even with the triple-digit heat predicted for this weekend, Frederick insisted she’ll seek the cheapest kind of cool she can find.

“I generally keep these fans all going and keep the windows open at night,” she said, settling into the breeze of two box fans in her tidy mobile home.

“I just keep them on high all the time.”

That solution is fine, as far as it goes. But public health and social service workers are worried that Frederick and other elderly people will find themselves overwhelmed by temperatures expected to top 100 degrees for several days.

Dr. Kim Thorburn, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, issued an advisory for heat-related illness Thursday, specifically warning people age 65 and older, very young children and other vulnerable people to take precautions.

“We can’t risk having even one person die because they didn’t have good information,” said Julie Graham, health district spokeswoman.

Decreased sensitivity to temperature and certain medical conditions can leave older people more susceptible to extreme heat, said Molly Mitchell, a case manager with Elder Services, a division of Spokane Mental Health.

“As you age, the heat is harder to tolerate,” said Mitchell, who spent this week checking dozens of older clients. “Some people don’t realize the dangers.”

Indeed, during the region’s last sustained heat wave in July 2002, area hospitals recorded several emergency room admissions for older people suffering from heat stress.

At the time, Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene treated at least 17 people for heat-related illness, said Lisa Johnson, hospital spokeswoman.

That can include milder heat exhaustion, which develops after several days of high temperatures and limited fluids. Or it can include severe heatstroke, which occurs when the body loses its ability to regulate temperature.

As a young farmer’s wife in Odessa, Frederick developed heatstroke after days in the fields. Even today, if she gets too hot, the memory of that illness returns.

“I get kind of sick and dizzy,” she said.

Although area agencies check on the most vulnerable elderly, there are few financial or other resources available to help, said Ron Hardin, development coordinator for Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs.

Most efforts go toward keeping older people warm in the Inland Northwest’s predictably icy winters.

“We’re frankly not geared up in the summer months because this type of extreme heat is so rare and it comes on so quickly,” Hardin said.

That leaves folks like Frederick to cope on their own. Her two box fans are a good move, said Mitchell. Unlike an air conditioner, a fan uses about the same energy as a light bulb, while providing constant cooling.

Frederick suggests another solution as well. In the cooler hours of the evening, she heads outside with her two cats.

“I go out there, I get my chair and I lay in the grass,” said Frederick. “My cats go out and lay at my feet. They like to be cool, too.”


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