After such a wet winter, a bit of sun may sound like no bad thing, but people often underestimate the effect of high temperatures on older people: the 2003 heatwave led to an alarming 22 per cent increase in mortality among people 75+ in England and Wales. So I was very pleased to be invited to a roundtable held by the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, as part of their Inquiry into Heatwaves: Adapting to Climate Change.
As we age, our body becomes less efficient at regulating our temperature, and this can be exacerbated by some types of medication. Some individuals are at greater risk, for example people living with dementia, heart problems (because the heart must work harder to pump extra blood to help cool your body down) or reduced mobility (which might make it more difficult for them to escape the heat or to get themselves a drink).
Some heat-related risks, however, arise from environmental issues such as poor building design. While ‘thermal comfort’ is increasingly considered within commercial property, the Government has not updated the building regulations for new homes, as recommended by the Climate Change Committee in 2015, let alone put in place an adaptation programme for existing homes.
At the roundtable, it was great to hear care home managers describe the steps they take to make life more comfortable for older residents in heatwaves, encouraging them to drink – for example, a ‘smoothie-making’ activity – increasing their regular health checks, and adapting activities. However, even relatively new care homes are not necessarily well-designed for the heat, and many are in older buildings, while 93 per cent of older people live in general housing anyway.
The National Heatwave Plan gives lots of useful advice for the health and care sector, but this is suffering from chronic underfunding. We know, for example, that 1.2m older people in England have an unmet need for care and that the numbers of older people received state-funded care has fallen by 400,000 since 2009/10.
Arguably, it is those older people struggling alone in the community who are most at risk in a heatwave – those who don’t have the support they need to ensure they can get a drink easily, open windows (and close them) or adjust ageing heating systems, and who spend most of the day alone in front of the television.
At Age UK, whenever we know a heatwave is on the way, we alert our network of local Age UKs and publicise our leaflet Staying cool in a heatwave through the media. However, reducing the risk to older people from heatwaves needs action across a range of areas:
- Improvements to building standards, access to funding for adaptations or short-term cooling aids, and better data on high-risk housing
- Prioritising action that can support older people in hot weather as well as cold – for example, loft insulation – and considering what role energy companies, which have priority service registers for vulnerable customers, might have to play in a heatwave.
- Joining up essential services better, so that they work together to reach those most at risk. For example, could housing authorities use Age UK’s loneliness heat maps to match areas with high numbers of isolated older people with housing that is most liable to over-heating?
- Extra funding to reach those most at risk –for example, to ensure that they have easy access to water or another palatable drink, and the support to drink it. This is the very least we need to do – after all we would expect no less for our dogs.
It feels like our weather is becoming more volatile, with major floods and storms. While this gives us something to talk about with our neighbours, we need to do more to ensure older people are safe and comfortable whatever the weather.