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To help vulnerable seniors during heat waves, Meals on Wheels is adding fans to the menu

Published July 19, 2017 9:44 am

Utah's elderly population growing rapidly; this month on track to be hottest July ever recorded.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was just after midnight when Juan Linares, 72, woke up soaked in sweat. The room was silent and still. Linares struggled to breathe as he reached for an inhaler on his bedside table.

"It's terrible at night," Linares said. "It feels like I'm choking, like someone has me by the neck and is putting pressure."

Without a fan, air conditioner or swamp cooler in his one-bedroom apartment in South Salt Lake, Linares had only one option to cool down on that June night. He hooked a green plastic tube to a portable oxygen tank, then pulled the device behind him as he walked outside, up three concrete stairs and over to a rusty metal fold-up bed with a foam mattress. In the cool night air, he lied down and drifted back to sleep.



"I don't like sleeping outside, there's too many mosquitoes," Linares said. "But it's for the fresh air. Once the breeze is hitting, that breeze helps a lot."

With the temperature expected to approach triple digits this week, everyone in Utah needs to be careful. But the intense heat can be particularly risky for seniors. And as the summers in Utah get hotter and the elderly population grows, researchers say the state will likely need to help more.

This June was the third hottest on record, behind high temperatures in 2015 and 2016. July is even hotter. As of Monday, 2017 is on track to set the record for the hottest July ever recorded, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bill Swiler, an emergency medicine specialist at Lake­view Hospital, said he regularly treats people for dehydration in summer, but seniors are particularly vulnerable.

"Elderly [people] are a little more prone to that exhaustion and heat stroke," Swiler said. "It puts a lot of strain on the heart, a lot of strain on the adrenal system, lungs and pulmonary system."

Meals on Wheels is a government program organized through the counties that delivered more than a million meals to homebound seniors in Utah during 2016. But in the summer, Meals on Wheels also has started delivering fans to those who have no air conditioners or swamp coolers.

Over the past two years, the program gave out more than 120 fans, but it expects to deliver even more this year because of the intense heat.

A few weeks ago Connie Morgan-Nelson, a driver for Meals on Wheels, stopped by Juan Linares' house to deliver lunch.

"The first thing was I saw he had a bed outside," Morgan-Nelson said. "And I knew something was wrong."

She came back with three fans and set them up in Linares' apartment, by his bed and in a window. With the breeze now blowing inside, Linares doesn't have to sleep outside anymore.

"Today I looked at the weather and it's supposed to get to 102," Linares said recently. "I don't have AC, I don't have nothing. If it weren't for these fans, I'd be cooked."

Such programs could have broad benefits, not just for the seniors but also for the state.

The elderly population in Utah is growing rapidly. In 2015, people 65 and older made up a little more than 10 percent of the state's population. In 50 years, that group is expected to grow to 20 percent, according to a projection by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. It's important for people to be able to age at home in order to stay healthy, according to Shawn Teigen, research director at the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization. "You're in a place that you know well and you're not around other illnesses as much as if you're in a facility with other folks."

It's also a lot cheaper to age at home. Most assisted living facilities cost about $30,000 a year, Teigen said. Medicaid will cover that cost, with about a third of the money coming from the state. Programs to help seniors age at home provide services like ramp installations, transportation or doing household chores. Costs are usually less than $9,000 a year, per person.

Sometimes the heat can be a breaking point for seniors.

"If you get sick enough, you're going to be hospitalized and maybe you won't get back to aging in place," Teigen said. "You may decide you've got to be placed in an assisted living situation because you can't get out to find a respite from the heat."

 

 

 

 

 

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