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B.C. seniors' advocate alarmed by 100+ 'tragic' heatwave deaths

Last Updated Jun 30, 2021 at 6:43 am PDT

B.C.'s rules surrounding visits to long-term care homes were eased as of July 19. FILE (iStock Photo)

BC's advocate for seniors says she's most worried about those living alone in apartments with no air conditioning

The BC Coroners Service, police departments are confirming being called to dozens of heat-related deaths

Isobel Mackenzie says checking on loved ones, neighbours in-person is crucial, a phone call is not enough

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — With news of more than 100 heat-related deaths in B.C., the province’s seniors’ advocate says older people who live alone in apartments continue to be incredibly vulnerable to the devastating consequences of this heatwave.

The BC Coroners Service and police departments in Metro Vancouver reported a significant spike in sudden deaths over the last four days, warning the number of fatalities is likely to keep climbing.

Isobel Mackenzie describes these deaths as “tragic.” Although details are still emerging about the people who have died, she says seniors have been disproportionately impacted.

“We are hearing reports, — most of which have been confirmed — that are telling us a number of seniors have died, most probably from an issue related to the extreme heat that we’re experiencing. Most of them, from what I have heard, have died in apartments. Those are the ones I am most worried about,” she explains.

“Apartments can be mini-greenhouses, and they don’t have necessarily good cross-ventilation, you’re often up higher, the heat is rising. You’re more likely to live alone, that is the other challenge when you’re in an apartment. And this can happen fairly suddenly, the compounding effect of this heat. So, a couple of days of the levels of extreme heat that we’ve had appear to have taken a very heavy toll on some seniors.”

And she warns that the “cooler” temperatures forecast for the rest of the week are not actually cool at all.

“We’ve had heatwaves before, but nothing like this. It’s a combination of many things, it’s not just how absolutely hot it is, it’s the number of days, and it’s the fact it’s not cooling down at night,” she says.

“We’ve got another few days of this to get through. So, we really do have to make sure that we don’t take anything for granted.”

Mackenzie is stressing how important it is to visit neighbours and loved ones in-person, adding a phone call may not be enough to undertsand the conditions seniors are trying to cope with.

“I think we, right now, what we need to do is get the message out, go and check on your mom, your dad, your grandma, your neighbour, your friend,” she says.

“I’ve talked about the need for family members to physically go and see their loved one. For example, mom might say, ‘No I’m fine,’ because she actually feels fine when she’s talking to you, and is less able to understand that her body is overheating. Some seniors simply don’t want to be a bother to people. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand the gravity of something that we haven’t really ever experienced.”

Visitors should make sure older people are hydrated, cool them down with cold cloths or compresses, and make sure drapes and blinds are closed. Taking seniors to cooling centres, malls, movies or other air-conditioned places can also provide some crucial relief. Particular attention should be paid to people in their 80s and 90s and those with respiratory issues, Mackenzie notes.

After more than a year of COVID-19-related restrictions on day-to-day activities, Mackenzie says it’s possible people are staying home more than they used to.

“We are not out and about, quite yet, as much as we would have been because of our pandemic measures. The relief of going to the shopping mall, the movie theatre the rec centre — we’re just getting back into that,” she says.

“Where people might have been able to go somewhere in the past, they’re not back into that rhythm quite yet. The degree to which that exacerbated it, we don’t know.”

Mackenzie says there will definitely be questions to answer about how the province prepared for and responded to this heatwave.

“What if anything could we have done to prevent these deaths?” she says.

“We don’t know enough yet about the circumstances to be able to answer that question. It may be that there are some things we could have done. It may be in a particular building, there’s something we find. It may be in our response to calls there’s something.”

Emergency services and first responders have reported tremendous strain on their resources throughout the heatwave, with people calling for help facing long wait times for 911 calls to be answered and ambulances to be dispatched.

With files from Ashley Burr

Heat Wave - Seniors Advocate Statement