Phil Bailey, 65 in Hawaii

Phil Bailey, 65, a dock worker who escaped the deadly wildfire in Lahaina by jumping into the ocean, recovers at an emergency shelter in Wailuku, Hawaii on August 10, 2023.

(Photo: Tom Hays for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The US Isn't Ready for the Climate Emergency's Impact on Older Adults

Efforts to build resilience have failed to consider what climate change means for this vulnerable population.

We will remember the summer of 2023 as our hottest season on record—at least until next year. Communities in Texas and Florida endured weekslong stretches of record-setting high temperatures, and Phoenix beat its own previous record when it reached an average monthly temperature of 102.7 in July. For many, there is a growing sense that this is the beginning of a “new normal” for which we are unprepared.

We are also largely unprepared for a rapidly aging population. In about a decade, more Americans will be over 65 than under 18 for the first time. This demographic shift is well underway in the places hit hardest by climate-fueled heatwaves. Florida and Texas have some of the nation’s largest concentrations of people over 65—4.6 million and 3.9 million, respectively; only California has more, with 6 million. Arizona saw its 65 and older population grow by nearly 55% to 1.4 million between 2010 and 2020.

Extreme heat and other climate impacts are already disproportionately impacting older adults. Yet to date, efforts to build resilience have failed to consider what climate change means for this vulnerable population.

For older adults, climate-fueled disasters can be a matter of life and death. From Hurricane Katrina, where over two-thirds of the more than 1,300 people who died were older than 60, to last winter’s storms in Buffalo, New York, older adults are far more likely to die in extreme weather events than younger people. That holds true for heatwaves as well. Deaths from heat-related illnesses claim the lives of 12,000 people each year, of which 80% are over 60.

Why? On top of the physical effects of aging, older adults are more likely to have underlying health conditions or take medications that interfere with a body’s ability to cool itself.

Low-income older adults are especially vulnerable, as they struggle to pay higher electric bills from greater use of air conditioning. Indeed, 17% of low-income older-adult-headed households report that they have had to forego necessities for at least one month to pay an energy bill. The majority of older adults live outside of nursing homes, and among those, 27% live alone in their homes, often lacking social networks that could help monitor their safety and well-being. What’s more, some are unable to procure food, prescriptions, and healthcare when they don’t drive—as is the case for nearly 20% of older adults—and can’t safely use public transportation during heatwaves.

As temperatures rise in our rapidly aging nation, we must plan to ensure resilience for the country’s oldest residents. Fortunately, solutions that meet the needs of older adults also benefit people of all ages. For example, programs that support seniors in weatherizing their homes can bring down cooling costs and deliver a more resilient housing stock. Bus shelters with shading and seating can make public transit feasible for older adults on hot days—and serve people of any age who can’t afford to or are unable to drive.

And help for older adults to both understand and access more energy-efficient technology (like heat pumps) and renewable energy solutions can relieve pressure on the electric grid during peak operations, helping to avoid blackouts and secure a more stable energy supply for all customers.

Our demographic future is clear, and the “new normal” of climate change has arrived. All Americans will be better served if we take steps now to prepare. We owe it to the older adults we love—and to ourselves, as we age—to ensure more comfort and safety in the face of a changing climate.

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