Deadly heat waves threaten older people as summer nears

Apr 30, 2023, 4:31 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — Paramedics summoned to an Arizona retirement community last summer found an 80-year-old woman slumped inside her mobile home, enveloped in the suffocating 99-degree (37 C) heat she suffered for days after her air conditioner broke down. Efforts to revive her failed, and her death was ruled environmental heat exposure aggravated by heart disease and diabetes.

In America’s hottest big metro, older people like the Sun Lakes mobile home resident accounted for most of the 77 people who died last summer in broiling heat inside their homes, almost all without air conditioning. Now, the heat dangers long known in greater Phoenix are becoming familiar nationwide as global warming creates new challenges to protect the aged.

From the Pacific Northwest to Chicago to North Carolina, health clinics, utilities and local governments are being tested to keep older people safe when temperatures soar. They’re adopting rules for disconnecting electricity, mandating when to switch on communal air conditioning and improving communication with at-risk people living alone.

Situated in the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix and its suburbs are ground zero for heat-associated deaths in the U.S. Such fatalities are so common that Arizona’s largest county keeps a weekly online tally during the six-month hot season from May through October. Temperatures this year were already hitting the high 90s the first week of April.


“Phoenix really is the model for what we’ll be seeing in other places,” said researcher Jennifer Ailshire, a native of the desert city now at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology where she studies how environmental factors affect health and aging. “The world is changing rapidly and I fear we are not acting fast enough to teach people how harmful rising temperatures can be.”

A at least three times as hard as climate change worsens.

Isolated and vulnerable, the heat victims last year during Maricopa County’s deadliest summer on record included 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.

While most of the county’s confirmed 378 heat-associated deaths were outdoors, those who died indoors were especially vulnerable because of isolation, mobility issues or medical problems as outside summertime highs hit 115 degrees (46.1 C).

Older people of color, with a greater tendency for chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure are especially at risk.

In Chicago, three African American women in their 60s and 70s died in spring 2022 when the centrally controlled heating in their housing complex remained on and the air conditioning was off despite unseasonable 90-degree weather in mid-May.

An undetermined number of older people died during the summer of 2021 when an unexpected heat wave swept across the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Canada reported that coroners confirmed more than 600 people died from the heat in neighboring British Columbia.


Many U.S. cities, including Phoenix, have plans to protect people during heat waves, opening cooling centers and distributing bottled water.

But many older people need personalized attention, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who directs the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“If you are elderly and sick you are unlikely to get into an Uber or bus to get to a cooling center,” said Bernstein, who vividly recalls a 1995 heat wave that killed 739 mostly older people in Chicago, his hometown. “So many were socially isolated and at tremendous risk.”

Sociologist Eric M. Klinenberg, who wrote about the catastrophe in his book “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” has noted social contacts can protect older people during disasters.

“Older people are more prone to live alone,” he said, “and they are the most likely to die.”

That’s true of all extreme weather.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005, around half of the 1,000 people killed were 75 or older, most of them drowned when their homes flooded.

Chicago encourages residents to check on older relatives and neighbors on hot days and city workers visit people’s home. But last year’s deaths at a Chicago apartment house shows more is needed.


Bernstein’s center is working with relief organization Americares to help community health clinics prepare vulnerable patients for heat waves and other extreme weather.

A “climate resilience tool kit” includes tips like making sure patients have wall thermometers and know how to check weather forecasts on a smart phone. Patients learn simple ways to beat the heat, like taking a shower or sponge bath to cool off and drinking plenty of water.

Alexis Hodges, a family nurse practitioner at the Community Care Clinic of Dare in coastal North Carolina, said rising temperatures can cause renal failure in patients with kidney problems and exacerbate dehydration from medications like diuretics.

Hodges contributed to the climate kit from a region that experiences all the weather events it covers: extreme heat, hurricanes, flooding and wildfires.

At the nonprofit Mountain Park Health centers that annually serve 100,000 patients in greater Phoenix, nurse practitioner Anthony Carano has written numerous letters to utility companies for low-income patients with chronic conditions, asking them not to turn off power despite missed payments.

“This is such an at-risk population,” Carano said of the overwhelmingly Latino patient population that suffer from diabetes and other ailments aggravated by warm weather. About one-tenth of the patients are 60 and older.

Francisca Canes, a 77-year-old patient visiting for back pain, said she’s fortunate to live with two daughters who take care of her during hot spells. In the summertime, she stays in shape by joining several women friends at 4 a.m. most mornings for a 4-mile (6.4 kilometers) walk.


Maricopa County in April used federal funds to to allocate another $10 million to its air conditioner replacement and repair program for people who qualify, brining total funding to $13.65 million. In greater Phoenix and several rural Arizona counties, older low-income people can apply for free repair or replacement of air conditioners through a separate non-profit program.

The Healthy Homes Air Conditioning Program run by the nonprofit Foundation for Senior Living last summer ensured about 30 people got new air conditioners or repairs and helped others with home improvements.

Priority goes to older people, those with disabilities and families with very small children, who are also vulnerable to the heat. A person living alone must earn $27,180 or less, said Laura Simone, program coordinator for FSL Home Improvements.

The program recently installed energy efficient windows in the 1930s home of 81-year-old widow Socorro Silvas.

“I am so grateful they are taking care of low-income people like me,” said Silvas, who got her air conditioner in the middle of a sweltering summer several years ago through a program run by Tolleson, a suburb west of Phoenix.

Utility companies can also help protect vulnerable people by halting power disconnections during hot periods.

“In Arizona, air conditioning is a matter of life and death, especially if you are older,” said Dana Kennedy, the state director of AARP, which has fought for stricter regulations preventing summertime power cutoffs.


New rules for Arizona utilities were adopted after 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman died in August 2018 at her Phoenix area home as outside temperatures reached 107 degrees (41.6 Celsius).

The medical examiner’s office said Pullman died from “environmental heat exposure” combined with cardiovascular disease after her power was shut off over a $176.84. debt.

The Arizona agency that regulates utilities now bans electricity cutoffs for nonpayment during the hottest months.

After the three Chicago women died last year, residential buildings for older people in the city now must recently passed legislation requiring that all affordable housing have air-conditioning operating when the temperature is 80 degrees (26.6 C) or higher and must be operable by residents.

Kennedy said mobile homes are especially dangerous as high temperatures transform them into a hot metal containers.

“A lot are not insulated,” said Kennedy, who has advised an Arizona State University group working to make mobile homes safer with more surrounding shade and on-site cooling centers. “These heat deaths truly are heartbreaking. But in many cases we can help prevent them.”


This report was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and The John A. Hartford Foundation.

AP (New)

Associated Press

Judge denies Phoenix request seeking extra time to clean largest homeless encampment

PHOENIX (AP) — A judge on Tuesday denied the city of Phoenix’s legal request seeking extra time to clean up the city’s largest homeless encampment. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Scott Blaney ruled in September that Phoenix must permanently clear the encampment on the edge of downtown by Nov. 4. The city asked for a […]

11 hours ago

Associated Press

Sheriff Paul Penzone of Arizona’s Maricopa County says he’s stepping down a year early in January

PHOENIX (AP) — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced Monday that he is resigning in January, a full year before his term ends. Penzone said at a news conference that he decided to step down and not seek a third term so he can explore other possibilities in public service. He didn’t elaborate. “I think […]

1 day ago

(Photo by Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images)...

Associated Press

Judge affirms Arizona can no longer exclude gender-affirming care from state health plans

A federal judge has approved a final settlement eliminating a ban on providing gender-affirming care under Arizona state employee health insurance.

1 day ago

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks an event in Largo, Md., Sept. 14, 2023. Biden, on Thursday, will ...

Associated Press

Biden making defending democracy a touchstone in his reelection campaign — and a rejoinder to Trump

PHOENIX (AP) — On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, President Joe Biden stood in early 2022 at the literal epicenter of the insurrection and accused Donald Trump of continuing to hold a “dagger” at democracy’s throat. Biden closed out the summer that same year in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, decrying […]

6 days ago

Associated Press

Woman arrested after 55 dogs are removed from animal rescue home and 5 dead puppies found in freezer

CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) — A Chandler woman who ran an animal rescue out of her now-condemned home has been arrested after dozens of abused dogs were discovered and five dead puppies found in a freezer, according to police. April McLaughlin, 48, was taken into custody Friday after a search warrant was executed at the house. […]

10 days ago

Associated Press

Arizona’s sweltering summer could set new record for most heat-associated deaths in big metro

PHOENIX (AP) — America’s hottest metro area is on track to set an annual record for heat-associated deaths after a sweltering summer, particularly in Phoenix. Public health officials in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and Arizona’s most populous county, said Friday that 289 heat associated deaths were confirmed as of Sept. 16, with another 262 […]

11 days ago

Sponsored Articles



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.


Mayo Clinic

Game on! Expert sports physicals focused on you

With tryouts quickly approaching, now is the time for parents to schedule physicals for their student-athlete. The Arizona Interscholastic Association requires that all student-athletes must have a physical exam completed before participating in team practices or competition.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]

Deadly heat waves threaten older people as summer nears