The National Weather Service in St. Louis issued a heat advisory this week as temperatures soared into the upper 90s.
The hot weather puts vulnerable people at risk for heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition that happens when bodies can’t keep their temperature low. The old, young and chronically ill are most at risk for heat-related illness.
Two St. Louis County residents have died this year from heat-related illnesses, according to Medical Examiner's Office administrator Suzanne McCune. Both were over 65 years old. Four of the five heat-related deaths in St. Louis County last year were people ranging from age 59 to 86, she said.
The elderly population has several compounding risk factors for heat stroke, Saint Louis University’s Geriatric Education Center executive director Marla Berg-Weger said.
“The combination of a chronic illness and extreme heat, multiple medications and extreme heat, when you put all three of those together you’re looking at an older adult who’s particularly at risk,” Berg-Weger said.
Older people are often isolated and don’t go to air-conditioned offices every day, Berg-Weger said. They might be afraid or not physically able to open windows or doors. And many are on a fixed income and worry that using the air conditioner would be too expensive.
“They tend to hunker down and just keep themselves isolated for safety and security reasons,” Berg-Weger said. “Unfortunately, every year we read a tragic story about an older adult who was found in their home, and everything was locked up tight with no A/C or fans running.”
The most effective way to keep older friends and family safe is to check on them in person, Berg-Weger said.
Calls are helpful, she said, but many times the effects of heat stroke are invisible over the phone, and callers can’t see the condition of the elderly person’s home. For example, a caller cannot tell if an air conditioner is working or a window is open.
She said it’s become more common for families to live far away from their elderly relatives and more difficult to keep daily tabs on their well-being. She recommends finding a church group or caregiving organization that makes visits or having a neighbor check on older, home-bound relatives.
Finding relief in cooling centers, public libraries
For those who can leave their homes, St. Louis and St.Louis County operate cooling shelters during stretches of intense heat. The shelters are activated when the temperature reaches 100 degrees or when the heat index — a measure of how hot the air feels — is more than 105 degrees.
Many of the St. Louis County cooling shelters are public libraries.
Public libraries are among the last indoor public spaces where people can gather with no questions asked, St. Louis Public Library Executive Director Waller McGuire said.
“It’s not exactly … our mission to operate as a shelter, it’s not how we’re designed, it’s not how we’re trained, but we do have spaces. We do have cool areas where someone can get in and get relief from the heat,” Mcguire said. “I don’t know if there are many alternatives in some of our neighborhoods.”
He said that libraries can provide a watchful community for people who might not have neighbors or family close by to check on them.
“Part of the community we get to know — our patrons … who’s walking, who’s driving,” McGuire said. Library staff look out for, are concerned about and try to stay in contact often with patrons who are in difficult health who are very elderly and very young.”
This week, the Salvation Army opened a 24-hour cooling shelter in the northwest St. Louis. Other shelters are in parks department recreation centers and certain outposts for the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging.
When it’s hot, health officials recommend drinking plenty of fluids and limiting outdoor time to morning and evening hours.
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Reporter’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Berg-Weger’s name. The reporter apologizes for the error.