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Seniors take on the challenge of beating the heat

Published August 2, 2009 4:09 pm

Hot days » Some wait for temps to top mid-90s before turning on the cooler.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Harold Mathews has endured his summer experiment -- to keep his home air conditioner turned off -- pretty well this whole season.

The 66-year-old guesses he has saved about $75 each month on his power bill compared with last year when his cooling system was running. "It's tolerable," with the help of a few fans, he said of his small, one-level apartment in Salt Lake City.

But on the few days the temperature has climbed above the mid-90s, "my brain felt like it was cooking," Mathews said.

So, he makes sure to carry a thermos filled with ice water everywhere he goes and waits out the hottest hours of the day at a nearby senior center or library.

"I'm glad I was able to come over here, for a few hours or something, where there's air conditioning," Mathews said in the library wing of the Columbus Center in South Salt Lake.

But for seniors on fixed incomes who don't want to test themselves against the heat, assistance programs can help keep their homes cool.

That kind of aid is critical, said Jim Pugh, executive director of the Utah Food Bank, because the rising heat can affect many seniors' health and put "them in a very dangerous situation," -- especially if they are homebound.

The food bank's Services for Seniors program aids about 800 seniors with their cooling systems -- either helping repair and maintain the units, or even purchasing new swamp coolers.

Sona Wang is finally enjoying a cool home. For more than a year, the 77-year-old Taylorsville resident hasn't been able to afford fixing her air conditioner. Last summer, she managed the heat by visiting her husband, since deceased, in his room at a nursing home.

But in mid-July, Services for Seniors technicians installed a new swamp cooler in her home -- and fixed a leaky faucet.

"Right now I turn it on," Wang said of the cooler, "and I'm enjoying it, and I feel like I can breathe."

Utah's summer heat hasn't caused any deaths in recent years, said Cyndi Bemis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health. But heat-related illnesses tend to send an average of 100 people each year into emergency rooms.

Hot, humid weather "makes it more difficult for your body to cool off with sweat," said emergency room physician Richard Thurman, who sees patients at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center.

The dry climate here might not have the same effects of deadly heat waves in the eastern United States, but it can still be especially dangerous for the young, elderly and those who exercise or work outside.

Some of the early symptoms of heat exhaustion are dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, nausea and cramps. Thurman recommends that people make sure to stay well hydrated, and if they don't have air-conditioning systems at home, to dress lightly and use fans to increase air flow.

Fans are still an important feature in Dolly Pitts' Sugar House home, even though she qualified for a swamp cooler two years ago through the Services for Seniors home-improvement program.

Unless the temperature is above the mid-90s, the 63-year-old said she doesn't turn on her cooler.

Most days, Pitts just closes the blinds, turns on the fans, moves to the basement or ventures to the Columbus Senior Center in South Salt Lake.

Her home is "bearable" without the swamp cooler, but Pitts joked that she gets more company now that she can cool parts of her home.

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Assistance programs

The Utah Food Bank Services for Seniors helps low-income elderly with home improvements, including installing swamp coolers. For more information, or to volunteer, call 801-887-1275 or the human services hotline, 2-1-1.

Though designed to minimize energy use in homes, county weatherization programs also install swamp coolers when medically needed. Weatherization improvements also can help insulate homes and lower temperatures by a few degrees. More information by county can be found at http://housing.utah.gov/wap.