How are our seniors doing?
It’s a question that perhaps we don’t ask ourselves often enough, in the context of climate change.
Like other vulnerable populations, our senior citizens are not necessarily outspoken. They don’t come out and shout about how the tides of change are affecting their daily lives. Moreover, the field of climate change and aging has not been fully explored; more research is required on the topic.
We should bear in mind that Jamaica has an aging population. Caribbean Representative for HelpAge International Jeffrey James points out that while citizens over the age of sixty years currently make up 11.3 per cent of the Jamaican population, this is projected to reach 20 to 25 per cent in the next twenty years.
This reflects a growing trend in some developing countries, especially in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Globally, this age group has doubled since 1980, and already stands at 22 per cent of the global population, according to the World Health Organization.
What are some of the greatest challenges for seniors? Two areas have emerged as particularly stressful: the impact climate change has on health, and on seniors’ ability to cope with extreme weather events, which are likely to arrive with increasing frequency or severity.
First of all, the heat is on.
We all feel it, and the elderly feel it even more.
“Mi get so tired. The time is hot!” observes one woman in her seventies, during a discussion among senior citizens served by the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC).
They live in Greenwich Farm and adjoining areas of Kingston. Our seniors in these lower-income neighborhoods have much more difficulty coping — especially those with no easy access to resources, or even to a cool building.
Extreme heat, coupled with periods of drought, exacerbates already existing health conditions, especially heart disease, obesity and respiratory diseases.
Heat causes a drop in blood pressure, making the heart work harder. Insufficient blood goes to the heart as it is going to cool the skin instead, and the risk of a heart attack is greater.
Obese people are generally more likely to suffer heat collapse because it is harder for their body to dissipate heat and, again, their heart comes under pressure.
A 2013 Johns Hopkins University study has found a link between outdoor heat and respiratory-related emergency admissions. The heat can inflame and contract airways and the body demands more oxygen to keep cool, bringing shortness of breath.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note that apart from heat exhaustion, older adults are more likely to suffer stress from high temperatures and must rehydrate regularly. The ability to regulate body temperatures weakens with age. In times of drought and water shortage, adequate rehydration is much harder — and for those less well off, bottled drinking water is costly.
So what do seniors do when the heat overwhelms them?
“We run away from the sun,” is the reply. “We go lie down!”
In other words, they become less active; the increased temperatures affect their mobility adversely.
The seniors who meet at WROC do not associate the changes they see in their environment daily with “climate change” in so many words, although, in general, they are well aware that “we are destroying Mother Earth”.
They do, however, acknowledge that drastic changes have occurred — and not simply because they are getting older and “times have changed”. The seniors say they have noticed the effect of the heat on their immediate environment.
In their urban yards, fruit trees have more pests; seeds that they plant never grow; and when they water their plants, the water evaporates quickly.
Not only is their yard less comfortable, it also produces less fruits and vegetables, and this affects their diet (and personal finances) too. There are “more mosquitoes” in the house and yard, residents agree.
Most of the group at WROC contracted the “chik v” (chikungunya) virus a year ago, creating more health problems. Arthritis, as HelpAge’s Jeffrey James also noted, appears to be a condition that has worsened among them. This may be the residual effect of the chikungunya virus, which often lingers; this vector-borne disease appeared in the Caribbean for the first time in 2013.
Climate change is taking place alongside rapid changes in our society. The concept of the “extended family” is waning in Jamaica, as in many other developing countries. Older family members are often more isolated socially; many live alone. This makes them less able to cope with the effects of climate change — whether it is a sudden weather event or a steady reduction in water supply.
This social isolation causes increased psychiatric stress for seniors with small circles of friends, and those with physical disabilities.
Mental health is an important consideration for the older generation. This is why “get togethers”, such as the weekly meetings at WROC referred to above, are so important. Social events encourage them to share the health issues they may be feeling as a result of the heat, lack of water and so on.
One elderly resident notes that due to the increased population in her community, there is an even greater strain on resources such as water in the changing climate. There is not enough water to go round. Overcrowding in urban areas affects the elderly disproportionately.
For the past two years, water shortages resulting from persistent droughts have plagued Jamaica and a number of other Caribbean countries. A survey conducted by HelpAge International in rural Jamaica recently highlighted the challenges drought periods have created for elderly populations.
“When there is a shortage of water, people have to walk longer distances to collect it,” pointed out Jeffrey James, “and the elderly are less mobile.”
Many cannot afford to purchase water. Additionally, James pointed out, many older Jamaicans are engaged in farming activities. The lack of rainfall has impacted their livelihood. The regular planting season is affected, as the dry and rainy seasons do not come at the same time.
Unpredictability! This is another element of climate change that the elders at WROC agree is a worry. “It used to be ‘June too soon’. Now we don’t know when a storm will come,” sighed one. This is hard for them to cope with, psychologically. Older people like their lives to have order and routine. HelpAge is working on a video (to be released soon) on disaster risk reduction for the elderly — coping with extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts).
Specific evacuation plans, especially for those who lack mobility and live alone, and perhaps a community register of elderly residents would help.
It is clear, however, that more research needs to be done in the area of climate change and the elderly. Although a growing body of evidence reports the negative effects of heat on the health of older adults, there is quite a large gap in the data for other climate-related risks.
Poor air quality may be another (somewhat hidden) factor that is taking an increasing toll; Ambassador K.G. Hill of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) in Jamaica notes this is an under-studied area. “The effects [of air pollution] are likely more serious than anecdotal stories,” Ambassador Hill observes.
A new Harvard study suggests that levels of carbon dioxide in modern buildings has a direct, negative impact on health, even at 1,000 parts per million (ppm).
Staying indoors in poorly ventilated housing may be a factor that we should watch for in the elderly. Again, much more detailed knowledge is needed, if we are to adopt the right strategies at regional, national, local and community levels.
Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that our elder citizens are not all helpless people. So many elderly Jamaicans live busy and productive lives, and would like to contribute more to society.
They have a great deal of experience, wisdom and possible solutions to offer — from the days when life was simpler, and Jamaicans were thriftier — as I learned from my conversations at WROC. Last year’s UN International Day for Disaster Reduction focused on the role of older people in fostering resilience and echoed these sentiments.
The answer is to get our seniors more involved. Decision-makers should offer them a “seat at the table” in climate change discussions. After all, based on projections for the next two or three decades, their influence will be much stronger.