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Don't Sweat It?

July 28, 2005 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Sylvia Schwartz tries to beat the heat.
Feel like going swimming? Just take a walk outside. After working your way through all the moisture and humidity, you’ll be soaked — without getting anywhere near a pool.

The recent heat wave scorching Philadelphia has put the city over 90 degrees for five straight days, from July 18 to July 22, broken by the weekend only to resume on Monday.

Tuesday hit a summertime high this year of 97, marking the 11th time this month that the mercury hit 90 or above, according to the National Weather Service.

(June, too, had its share of 90-degree days — five, to be precise.)

And more of the same appears to be in store in the days and weeks ahead. As huge swaths of the United States were painted a dark hue of purple on National Weather Service forecast maps earlier this week — indicating heat advisories for hundreds of locales, from Dallas to Chicago to Richmond, Va. — the AccuWeather forecast firm was calling for only a brief respite on Wednesday, to be followed by yet another sweltering stretch.

While the hot weather may be fun for beach bums or kids playing in pools, it can be troublesome for the area’s seniors. To seek refuge from the heat, some venture to community centers, such as the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia, which provides kosher lunches and a full program of activities in an air-conditioned atmosphere.

“I don’t like the heat,” said Isaac Lichtenberg, 91, lounging in one of the center’s communal areas, while the temperature outside inched toward 93 — the high in Philadelphia on July 22 — and the humidity approached more than 50 percent. The temperature and humidity combined for a heat index — the temperature meteorologists say the body thinks it’s at — nearly two degrees higher than the actual air temperature.

“I sit in the air-conditioned room. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to make it,” continued Lichtenberg. “I’m not a young man.”

In this kind of weather, air-conditioning is not just a luxury, it’s a life-saver. Heat-related illnesses have claimed 11 Philadelphians so far this summer, according to Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the city’s health department. Coroners and medical examiners report no such deaths in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties.

Evelyn Cardonick, 86, who visited the Stiffel Center on Friday while vacationing from Florida, can’t wait to get some relief from the Philly sun.

“Its hotter here than it is in West Palm Beach,” she said. “I can’t walk outside to get my exercise.”

(In actuality, the high temperature recorded at Palm Beach International Airport on July 22 was exactly the same as that recorded at Philadelphia International Airport.)

To ensure that the heat doesn’t get the best of its seniors, the center monitors its clients and makes sure they’re able to stay cool.

“We encourage the seniors to stay longer if they don’t have air-conditioning at home,” said site director Susan Hoffman. “Our nurse has spoken to them about making sure they’re hydrated, and that they can stay longer here in the building if they like.”

The Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia has also been helping the elderly this summer.

“We have been paying for [electric] fans for clients,” said Joanne Lipper, manager of critical needs at JFCS. “We helped pay for some air-conditioners. Because of health problems, that’s a more long-term plan.”

In Northeast Philadelphia, the JCC Klein Branch is experiencing an increase in the number of people coming to the center, many of them reflective of the seniors who live nearby. These new visitors seem to be staying longer as well.

“We’re keeping people from being at home in the heat,” said Rivka Powers, director of social services at the Klein Branch. “Anyone who wants to come here is finding relief.”

Moreover, operators of the Klein’s Kosher Meals on Wheels program monitor the city’s elderly for any possible health problems. “Our drivers check to see if the seniors are doing OK, and report back if they notice anything,” said Powers.

And as it does every year, the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging issued a list of tips for the elderly to stay cool during summer. Among the suggestions: Remain indoors with an air-conditioner running or in a well-ventilated room with a fan; drink plenty of water; and consult a doctor if you start to feel dizzy or sick.

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, which urged those suffering from the heat wave to call its hotline (215-765-9040), also released a set of tips to avoid related illnesses. The list draws a distinction between such mild warning signs of heat exhaustion like thirst and lightheadedness with the more severe signs of vomiting, diarrhea and muscle cramps. The latter symptoms point to the potentially fatal condition of heat stroke.

Above all, according to the corporation’s guidelines, do not use a fan with the windows closed. Scientists say doing so could effectively make a convection oven out of your home, and cause the temperature inside to rise beyond livable limits.

Back at the Stiffel, Shirley Lorenstein, 76, offered a sound alternative for seniors without air-conditioning in their homes: “Take a bus to the malls, where it’s nice and cool. Take a book with you, and read on the benches.”

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