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Each summer energy companies across the United States give away box fans to help consumers cool their residences – AND to help mitigate high levels of energy usage by supplementing cooling through increased air circulation. There are many ways to think about these programs, not all of them benign, if we consider why they are needed in the first place, and how the quality of some fans leads to concerns about planned obsolescence. The importance of those issues notwithstanding, this post is more oriented toward the concerns I heard from an 88-year-old named Mildred, when I was working in a position to help her obtain one of these box fans during a particularly hot summer in the southeastern US:

I appreciate it, honey but my real concern is when those storms come when the electricity goes out, and then even your fan won’t help. That’s why I make extra ice all summer, so I can keep an extra freezer full in case I need to cool off with ice packs.

Mildred had experienced several storms in recent years that resulted in her living in her small home for multiple days without power. Her asthma, compounded by congestive heart failure and coupled with advanced osteoarthritis, meant that  extremely hot days zapped her energy, put her at risk for dehydration, and made it increasingly difficult – and sometimes undesirable – for her to move around. Mildred represents a profile of many older adults living in the context of climate change.

Writing for the American Journal of Public Health, Frumkin, Fried and Moody (2012) labeled climate change as a ‘super wicked problem’ , characterized by complex root problems and complicated solutions with numerous opposing views held by multiple stakeholders. Whatever your stakeholder stance is toward climate change, however, there are several generally agreed-upon points:

  • Climate change refers to any long-lasting change in the average weather for a region; currently this refers to increases in average atmospheric temperatures impacting levels of precipitation, severity of weather events, and food production around the world
  • By 2019, nearly 1200 governments and jurisdictions had issued Climate Emergency Declarations (Harper, 2019), and the World Economic Forum had named 4 of the 5 top risks to global economic stability as environmental in nature
  • Older adults suffer inordinately from the effects of climate change

 Why the last point?

 Congruent with earlier posts for the wAGING change blog, we don’t wish to stereotype later life a time of decline and increased vulnerability. The accumulation of years of experience and exposure to this world, however, do make us more susceptible to multiple chronic health conditions (MCCs) and resulting functional disabilities. Three out of four adults over the age of 65 live with MCCs (MCC Resource Center) and 50% also report functional disability that affects mobility, self-care and/or management of everyday life. These risk factors also increase susceptibility to the effects of climate change.

From the standpoint of MCCs:

  • Increased ambient air pollution has an inordinate impact on those with respiratory compromise such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma
  • Prolonged heat exposure increases risk of dehydration, which can have an especially detrimental impact on older adults (Harper, 2019; U.S. EPA, 2016)
  • Sensory changes such as hearing and vision loss can compromise access to weather-related information and emergency warnings.

Relative to functional disability:

  • Mobility impairments are heightened in natural disasters and extreme weather conditions, especially situations that may require evacuation
  • Many older adults rely on assistive and medical devices that require electric power to operate effectively (e.g. power wheelchairs or scooters, stair lifts, oxygen tanks)
  • Access to medication and personal assistance may be compromised in times of power outages and weather events that impact travel and service delivery.

Add to the above factors the structural issues of poverty in later life, a greater percentage of older adults living alone, and issues with housing, and the complicated nature of this situation comes into focus. It is a startling reality that over 50% of those who lost their lives in both Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast and Superstorm Sandy in the northeastern U.S. were over the age of 75 (U.S. EPA, 2016). This harsh reality is not limited by geographic borders, however.  Across the globe, older adults living in areas where there is concern for the future of fresh drinking water and for the severity of storms are thought to be particularly vulnerable to these conditions due to the inability to easily adapt to the lack of resources or migrate to areas of greater resilience (Harper, 2019).

For the month of May, wAGING change will consider the inordinate impact of climate change on older adults. For our next post, we welcome a guest blogger, Sarah Torgeson, a UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student in American Studies who studies the vulnerability of older adults to natural disasters and climate change on the U.S. Gulf Coast. To round out the month, we will turn to a challenging consideration of the contributions of aging to the problem of climate change. Join us as we explore this ‘super wicked problem’.

References:

Frumkin, H,, Fried, L., & Moody, R. (2012). Aging, Climate Change, and Legacy Thinking. American Journal of Public Health, 102(8), 1434-8.                                                                          

Harper, S. (2019). The Convergence of Population Ageing with Climate Change. Journal of Population Ageing, 12(4), 401-403. http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1007/s12062-019-09255-5                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Multiple Chronic Conditions: Management, Treatment and Prevention: Multiple Chronic Conditions Resource Center retrieved 08 May 2021 from https://www.multiplechronicconditions.org/  

U.S. EPA (2016). Climate Change and the Health of Older Adults. United States Environmental Protection Agency. EPA 430-F-16-058. May 2016.

                                        ©2021 JLWomack: Professor Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

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