washingtonpost.com
Have a phone? Check in on those feeling the heat the most: Senior citizens.

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; B01

Istill have a hard time believing it, but my 87-year-old neighbor, Ruth, insists that she is not repulsed by our existence.

Every day (and many times, twice a day), she tells me how grateful she is to look past her porch at the carnival that is my household.

Massive garden trenches dug by tiny bulldozers, hanging ferns bristling with foam rockets, the summertime screech of squirt gun battles -- she doesn't hate this?

"I love it," she snaps at me. "It makes me feel like I'm part of the world. I don't want to be locked away somewhere, playing cards with people my own age. Having to listen to their health problems."

Ruth bought her Northeast Washington home more than 30 years ago, and she's going to stay in it, thank you very much.

It's called aging in place. And there are groups, networks and even architectural movements that try to help our nation's elderly fulfill a largely universal wish: to stay in their own homes as they grow old.

But this is the kind of extreme weather week when the vulnerability of these folks blisters to the surface.

The heat-related deaths we hear about each year are usually our grandmas and grandpas, the folks who can't jump in a pool or run through the sprinkler.

Our cities open cooling centers and fire hydrants to help everyone out, but little good that does for someone with a walker.

"I just came outside -- it's about as far as I can go," said Patricia Chase, 70, who made it out of her Northeast rowhouse to escape the stifling heat and using a walker shuffled to the edge of her yard, where a car registered 103 degrees. Her air conditioner had battled valiantly, but then the power went out.

Over the past few days, 5,800 Pepco customers across the region sweltered and roasted while workers who were just as miserable worked to get their power restored, sometimes within hours. A power outage on Bloomingdale hit a few blocks where lots of seniors live. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) wrangled a $39-a-night deal at a Marriott for the seniors who were sweltering for hours on end.

Chase desperately needed the air back on. "You name it, I got it when it comes to health problems. The high blood pressure. The asthma," she said, and then went on to name a dozen more things neither of us can spell.

Like Chase, seniors are going to wilt sooner in the heat because they are sick or immobile. But sometimes, they're simply bedeviled by a lifelong frugality.

"They're pinching pennies to survive, and so many times, I can't get them to turn on their A/C," said Mark Andersen, whose organization, We Are Family, delivers groceries to about 500 D.C. senior citizens weekly.

Instead, they make do with fans and open windows.

"You just can't do that in this kind of heat," Andersen had to tell some of his clients on the hottest days this week before he switched on their air conditioning himself.

He tries to counsel them on surviving the heat wave while staying on a budget. Maybe make just one or two rooms cool and stay in those, he tells them.

This week, Isaac Melton had a much more formidable task ahead of him: He had to convince an elderly woman that the air conditioner does not spew evil, poisonous fumes into her home that are designed to kill her.

"It took a lot of negotiation to get her to turn that thing on," said Melton, a D.C. paramedic who was visiting vulnerable residents all week.

"She wanted to use the fan. I had to tell her there's no good in recirculating hot air. That's not going to bring your core temperature down," he said.

She was skeptical. He made a deal with her: She could call him if there were, in fact, fumes coming out of her air conditioner and it made her feel worse to cool down. She turned it down.

So far, she hasn't called back.

"Street Calls" is a preventive measure by the fire department, which is reviewing its database for the folks who call 911 the most and checking in on them.

"We figure it's better to give them that 75-cent bottle of water and a lecture instead of having a $3,000 EMS transport later that day," said Pete Piringer, the department's spokesman.

Every day since the Fourth of July, he said, paramedics have responded to about 700 calls. Even so, the cases of heatstroke that medics are seeing have been awful. Dry lips, limp bodies, exhaustion.

"The problem is, that generation just doesn't want to ask for help," Piringer said.

And that means we have to help them. Get nosy, get into your neighbors' business, find out how they're doing. When the paramedics' database and nonprofit organizations are among the only safety nets for many of our seniors, it's time for us to care a little more.

I know, I know. You may not have the time to hear the World War II story again, or sit through another analysis of low-rider jeans and the demise of civility, but somewhere between our busy lives and our self-importance, we can find the time.

When I called Ruth on Thursday, she said her air conditioning was struggling to keep the broiling heat at bay.

"My head feels like it's stuffed full of cotton," she declared before launching into a detailed description about how she gets her favorite deli meat delivered from Baltimore. And a story about the women's regatta races in Annapolis. And her cousin in Seattle.

Sounds like Ruth is doing fine.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company