Older adults are feeling the heat, literally
This August, California’s Death Valley National Park recorded what experts say may be the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth. Yet, it isn’t just deserts that are warming up. Across the country — including in northern states — communities are experiencing more hot days.
Changing temperatures, like other forms of climate change, may seem universal — but their impacts are far from it. One group particularly susceptible to its effects are older adults. In part, this is because older bodies are less resilient to heat. Older adults are more likely than younger people to experience heat exhaustion, dehydration and heat-induced cardiovascular events such as strokes. Research suggests that strings of days with elevated temperatures — a key result of climate change — place particular stress on older adults’ cardiovascular systems, leading to increased risk of early death.
But older adults face special risk from rising temperatures not simply because they are physically more vulnerable to heat. They also are vulnerable because their homes are often less well equipped to deal with heat extremes. Many have retired to sunbelt communities where temperatures are now spiking. Those who have remained in the homes they lived in when younger may find their residences are energy-inefficient — making the cost of cooling them unaffordable.
Indeed, cooling costs are a major issue for low-income adults across the age spectrum. Low-income households already spend more than twice as much of their household income on utilities as median-income households. The result is that many must choose between maintaining safe temperatures in their homes and paying for food or needed medicines (a situation sometimes referred to as the “heat or eat” problem). Indeed, a 2015 study found that more than 20 percent of U.S. households reduced or went without basic necessities during the year in order to pay their energy bills. This problem of fuel poverty is particularly acute for Black and Latino households, who disproportionately occupy less energy efficient units.
The good news is public programs already exist to mitigate the immediate impact on the most vulnerable. For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income people (primarily those within 150 percent of the federal poverty limit) pay for air conditioning. Similarly, the Weatherization Assistance Program helps reduce energy needs for lower-income persons.
Unfortunately, far too many people who need help from these programs never receive it. The federal government estimates that a mere 20 percent of those who qualify for LIHEAP receive it. Lack of awareness of the program’s benefits, time-consuming and often complicated application processes and onerous proof requirements keep needed help out of reach for many would-be beneficiaries. In addition, some states impose asset tests even though research suggests that this approach is regressive and systemically results in the poorest would-be beneficiaries not establishing eligibility.
With temperatures rising, it is incumbent on policymakers to do more to help mitigate the impact on older adults and other vulnerable populations. A first step is to reduce the barriers to qualifying for LIHEAP and weatherization assistance. This would mean streamlining application processes, avoiding the use of tests or verification approaches that create undue procedural hurdles and expanding public awareness campaigns to better educate the public about these programs. Notably, such campaigns — especially if targeted to communities with high rates of energy inefficacy — could help reduce racial disparities as low-income Black and Latino communities are disproportionately saddled with energy inefficient housing.
A second step is to focus greater efforts — and resources — on making low-income housing units energy efficient. Currently, the bulk of federal LIHEAP and weatherization funds are spent on helping people pay utility bills, with less than 20 percent spent on helping people reduce their energy use. Investing in home modifications to reduce exposure to extreme heat among older people is likely to be cost-effective. Improving energy efficiency for older people reduces health care costs by preventing heat-related illness while reducing energy bills. Modifying and weatherizing homes not only improves thermal comfort for older people, but it also prevents costly hospitalizations and related health care expenses. So keeping older people cool provides the rare opportunity to solve several problems at a time.
Policymakers should also be actively exploring policies that can encourage older adults to reduce their energy needs. Older adults in the United States overwhelmingly prefer to “age in place,” but the larger and older homes occupied by many older people are often highly energy inefficient. Policymakers and community leaders should encourage — including through public education, financial incentives and zoning — living arrangements that foster “green living” while allowing older adults to maintain the independence and connection to community commonly associated with aging in place. One such option is gaining speed: elder co-housing. These intentional communities can provide energy efficient, temperature controlled housing while maximizing both independence and social integration. Community based programs that facilitate downsizing and homesharing can also help reduce older adults’ environmental footprint and energy needs.
The rising costs facing older adults also underscores the need to prioritize financial security in older age. This means, among other things, retaining the funding mechanism for Social Security — and not terminating the payroll tax, as President Trump has promised he would seek to do if reelected.
Ultimately, however, older adults are the tip of the (melting) iceberg. They are among the first to suffer the consequences of climate change. But as temperatures continue to rise, other — initially less vulnerable — populations will begin to feel similar effects.
The key to truly protecting older adults and other vulnerable populations from the worst impacts of climate change is to simultaneously work to adapt to climate change and to reduce the human-induced causes of that change.
Nina A. Kohn is the David M. Levy professor of law at Syracuse University and the Solomon Center Distinguished Scholar in Elder Law with the Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy at Yale Law School. Her research focuses on the civil rights of older adults. Follow her on Twitter @NinaKohn.
Karl Pillemer, PhD, is the Hazel E. Reed professor of Human Development at Cornell University and the director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. He is the creator of Retirees in Service to the Environment, which fosters environmental civic engagement and volunteerism among older people.