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Elderly, Isolated Are Heat's Quiet Victims

State officials want a better plan for checking on vulnerable residents when temperatures rise.

July 29, 2006|Hector Becerra and Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writers

The heat wave that gripped California this week is emerging as the state's deadliest act of nature in years and is prompting calls for the government to overhaul the way it deals with the elderly during periods of extreme temperatures.

The suspected death toll from the heat rose to about 130 on Friday -- including the first confirmed case in Los Angeles County -- far surpassing the number of deaths caused by the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, as well as the 2003 wildfires.

Officials said the vast majority of the victims were "hidden" members of society -- often transients and elderly people who lived alone and in isolated areas. Most of the deaths occurred in the Central Valley, Inland Empire and desert regions, where the usually broiling summer temperatures jumped 10 to 12 degrees.

Poor seniors were particularly hard hit, including four men who died in hotel rooms a few blocks from the state Capitol and several elderly women found dead in their tiny apartments in Fresno.

"This is a natural disaster," said Mark Beach, an AARP official in Sacramento. "People live alone with no friends or family. A tiny minority of these places have air conditioning. People are being cooked in these little boxes of rooms."

By midweek, state and county officials began checking on elderly people they knew lived alone and might be at risk. But it was too late in some cases.

There is growing support for California to create a disaster plan dealing with extreme heat, based partly on ones implemented by Chicago and other cities that experience a significant number of heat-related deaths.

After a 1995 heat wave killed more than 700 people in Chicago, most of them elderly, the city established a registry in which officials would check during periods of hotter weather on elderly people living alone. Kansas City, St. Louis and Philadelphia adopted similar systems.

"There's more Americans living alone, aging alone and dying alone than before," said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago."

Chicago uses a network of police officers, social workers and volunteers to keep tabs on thousands of its most vulnerable citizens. When a heat wave strikes, an automated phone system calls more than 60,000 seniors and frail people. For those who cannot be reached, the teams make direct visits.

"Sick people can survive dangerous heat waves and live many years," Klinenberg said. "And so there's no reason not to treat heat-related deaths as premature and unnecessary when the victims are old people."

AARP's Beach supports creating a similar system for California and said his organization would be interested in offering its huge volunteer corps.

In the wake of California's deaths, state emergency management officials said Friday that they probably would move to create a system that classifies extreme heat with other natural disasters.

"This was an act of nature, like an earthquake or a fire," said Roni Java, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

The Central Valley has seen unusually high temperatures for several weeks, but they really surged the last six days. Between Saturday and Wednesday, Fresno's high was 112 or greater -- a good 10 to 12 degrees above normal for the period (the high dropped to 106 on Thursday, and low temperatures rarely dropped below the 80s this week).

County medical examiners say they have not seen anything like the recent spate of deaths.

In Stanislaus County, there typically is no more than one heat-related death during the summer. This year there have been 29 suspected heat deaths.

David Jones, of Stanislaus County's office of emergency services, said that when the death toll began to climb earlier this week, officials tried to contact seniors they knew about. But they realized it would be impossible to reach all of them.

"Of the people who tragically died during this heat wave, the majority of them lived alone and were scattered through different places throughout the county," Jones said. "The question for those people who have fallen under the radar, how do you find them?"

Health experts and others said the elderly are especially at risk because they cannot sense extreme heat the way younger people can. Elderly individuals are also more likely to take medication that impairs the body's ability to regulate temperature.

Hal Fielding, a field supervisor at Fresno's American Ambulances, said many elderly people seemed desensitized to the heat. "It can be 80 degrees in their house, and they'll feel cold," he said. "I've walked into the house of an elderly person, and she was just baking in there."

Valentine Villa, a professor of social work and associate director of the Applied Gerontology Institute at Cal State Los Angeles, said psychological issues often are at work. Some elderly people grew up in a time before air conditioning and believe they can brave hot weather without it, she said.

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