Our ageing population is at its most vulnerable in the heat

TEN years ago, a heatwave in France killed 14,000 people. Although most were elderly and infirm, the figure is still staggering and little surprising that such a national disaster led to a widespread outcry and a revision of emergency procedures.

But if that incident seems a world away, then it is worth recalling that some towns recorded temperatures above 40 degrees for seven days running. Over the week to come, there are some Victorian towns due to hit that temperature for at least four days. 

Due to the construction of their houses and the usually predictable cooling overnight, the French did not see air-conditioning as necessary. Once, Australians were like this and built their shuttered and verandahed houses accordingly.

But it is not so any more. Either by design or carelessness, houses demand air conditioning. This in turn puts enormous pressure on the power supply until unprecedented demands cause power overloads. 

The result is, we are without the now essential air conditioning and less conditioned to tolerate it.

Given the vast energy consumption is itself widely considered to be a cause of global warming, it would seem we are caught in a hot cycle.

But rather than appear alarmist, this should be an incentive for practical action. The Bureau of Meteorology predicts more of such weather to come this summer. 

While subsequent analysis of France post-2003 recognised the failure of the health system, with large numbers of staff away on holidays, one of the more worrying revelations was that the fractured nature of French family life and the isolation of its elderly had contributed to the disaster. 

The lesson here is clear and more pertinent than ever; we must pay closer attention to the aged during these extremes.

We are an aging population, people are living longer and in a sense the risks are growing greater. The soaring price of power will deter or even prohibit many from the luxury of artificial cooling.

If communities are more insular than the past and we do not know our elderly neighbours, now is a better time than ever to knock on a door.

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