“I’m a kind of a miracle at my age, working 10 hours a day,” she says.
Recently, though, Nunzia, like many elderly people, has been affected by the extreme heat that has hit the region. She explains why heat can be extra difficult for elderly people and those with pre-existing medical conditions, and why, with extreme heat events increasing due to climate change, it is so important to care for vulnerable community members.
“Today it’s 42 degrees Celsius, that’s 107 Fahrenheit, and there’s a strange wind from the Sahara,” says Nunzia, sitting in her air-conditioned kitchen in a vest top. “It was never like this year before. We never reached 40 degrees, never.”
Humidity stands at an uncomfortable 75% and, since Nunzia only has one working kidney, she notices the effects of dehydration.
“I’m sweating a lot, not eating really. I don’t feel like eating. I’m not sleeping properly.”
During the heatwave she has developed stomach problems and is worried about her heart. “Today I made an appointment with my cardiologist because the other day I felt like couldn’t breathe,” she says. She also mentions the negative effects of chilly air conditioning on rheumatism and arthritis.
Because of her nights of broken sleep, one Sunday, she slept all day, without eating, and was only roused by visitors late in the evening. It worries her what could have happened if they had not dropped by. During the week, she considers herself fortunate to have the company of the volunteers who work for her charity, and a network of caring neighbours.
“Three days ago, because of the heat, I was very, very sick. I thought it was heatstroke. I had 2 people here looking after me. Believe me, I can trust in my volunteers, my friends, my family, and so many other people in the south of Italy.”
She, in turn, looks out for other elderly people in the neighbourhood, especially now when so many are confined to their homes because of the hot weather.
“We are very lucky to live in a house with a garden. I’m always thinking about people living in small apartments, when there was COVID-19 and now, because of the heat you cannot go out,” she explains. “Three old ladies live on their own on this street. We look after them by phone, we call each other, and we ask each other if anyone needs any shopping.”
Nunzia would like to see measures that recognize not just the health effects of heat on the elderly, but also the added stress and social isolation it can bring.
“I’m lucky, but I’m in contact with my sister and brother, they are older than me. It’s not easy to live in this situation,” she says. “I suggest fetching people from their homes and taking them to community centres during the day to meet others. They can spend a nice day in a cooler place. That should be done in cities.”
Coping with the effects of heat
New estimates recently released by the scientific journal Nature found that last year alone, more than 60 000 people in Europe died because of extreme heat, and as our planet continues to warm, this number is set to rise year on year. As well as increasing mortality, extreme heat causes suffering and isolation, and exacerbates pre-existing conditions.
To help people avoid the worst health effects of heat, WHO/Europe’s #KeepCool campaign offers simple, practical advice:
Keep out of the heat. Avoid going out and doing strenuous activity during the hottest time of day. Stay in the shade, do not leave children or animals in parked vehicles, and if necessary and possible, spend at least 2–3 hours of the day in a cool place.
Keep your home cool. Use the night air to cool down your home. Reduce the heat load indoors during the day by using blinds or shutters and turning off as many electrical devices as possible.
Keep your body cool and hydrated. Use light and loose-fitting clothing and light bed linen, take cool showers or baths, and drink water regularly, while avoiding sugary, alcoholic or caffeinated drinks.
It is important to take care of yourself, and to check on family, friends and neighbours who spend much of their time alone. Vulnerable people might need assistance on hot days. If anyone you know is at risk, help them to get advice and support.
To protect populations from the worst effects of extreme heat, national and local administrators should play their part by:
establishing heat–health action plans that incorporate early warning and response systems for urban and non-urban settings;
creating response strategies targeting both the general population and vulnerable groups such as older adults and people who work outside;
drawing up effective stakeholder communication plans.