In Arizona, a state known for its intense heat, an 80-year-old woman was found deceased in her mobile home last summer, succumbing to the scorching 99-degree (37°C) heat after her air conditioner failed. This tragedy underscores the acute dangers faced by the elderly during heatwaves, a problem becoming increasingly prevalent across the United States as global warming intensifies.
In Phoenix, one of the hottest major metros in the U.S., the majority of the 77 heat-related fatalities last summer were older individuals who perished within their homes, often without functioning air conditioning. As climate change worsens, similar heat hazards are emerging nationwide, from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago and North Carolina. In response, health clinics, utilities, and local governments are working to better safeguard their aging populations, establishing rules regarding electricity disconnection, communal air conditioning usage, and enhanced communication with at-risk individuals living alone.
With temperatures reaching high 90s as early as April, Phoenix and its suburbs are the epicenter for heat-related deaths in the U.S. According to a 2021 study, over a third of U.S. heat deaths each year are linked to human-induced global warming, accounting for over 1,100 fatalities annually in some 200 cities.
In Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, the victims of last year’s deadliest summer on record were often isolated and vulnerable. Older people of color, more likely to have chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, are particularly at risk.
Cities across the U.S., including Phoenix, are implementing strategies to protect residents during heatwaves, such as opening cooling centers and distributing bottled water. But more personalized attention is often necessary, especially for the elderly who may struggle to reach these facilities.
To address this, organizations are developing new initiatives, like the “climate resilience tool kit” which provides vulnerable patients with tips for staying safe during extreme weather. In Phoenix, nonprofit health centers are also advocating for low-income patients with chronic conditions, urging utility companies not to cut off power despite missed payments.
Maricopa County recently allocated additional federal funds to expand its air conditioner replacement and repair program for qualifying individuals. Meanwhile, utility companies are being urged to halt power disconnections during heatwaves. New regulations are being adopted in response to tragic incidents, such as the death of 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman whose power was cut off over a small debt during a heatwave.
As the world warms, the lessons learned in places like Phoenix are becoming increasingly critical, providing models for mitigating the risks of rising temperatures, particularly for vulnerable populations.