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Deadly Summer Heat Wave Poses Special Threat for Elderly Illinois Nursing Home Residents

Extreme summer temperatures during the week of July 18, 2011, claimed the lives of at least 12 Chicago area residents. Local forecasters expect this dangerous heat wave to continue, with temperatures reaching close to triple digits for the second week in a row. Although Illinois residents are particularly at risk for heat-related illnesses and even death, the threat exists beyond our state. Another eight heat deaths were reported nationwide, with record temperatures existing around the country.

Our Illinois nursing home lawyers regularly work with area seniors, and we understand that the older population is particularly vulnerable to heat-related injuries. According to USA Today, approximately 40 percent of all heat-related deaths happen to people over the age of 65. Seniors tend to perspire less, because the amount of water in the body declines with aging. Over time, the body is also slower to respond to temperature signals in the brain, so it becomes harder to recognize symptoms of dehydration. Heat exhaustion and fatal heat stroke can happen in a matter of hours, causing catastrophic injuries or death. Warning signs include dizziness and nausea, or more serious side effects such as loss of consciousness and seizures.

Elderly nursing home patients are even more susceptible to heat complications due to their medications. Diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure increases urination, further robbing the body of water during a heat wave. Other medications used to treat prostate problems or Parkinson’s disease interferes with perspiration and raise body temperature to critical levels. Some common chronic diseases, such as diabetes, also negatively affect the way the body normally responds to heat.

Nursing homes have a legal duty to ensure that vulnerable residents are protected from extreme heat. In order to prevent serious heat-related illnesses, federal regulations require that comfortable and safe temperature levels are kept at all times. Air conditioning units and electric systems must be in proper working order and nursing homes needs to have a contingency plan in place in case they fail during a period of excessive heat. Conditions can quickly become dangerous and deadly.

Unfortunately, some nursing homes have recently failed to meet their legal obligations, resulting in deadly consequences. A tragic example of nursing home negligence occurred in Milwaukee in June of 2011. Staffers left a 69-year old nursing home resident outside, unattended for more than three hours during an excessive heat advisory. They eventually found the man dead in his wheelchair.

This type of suffering is preventable and should never occur. Nursing homes cannot place residents at risk during extreme heat, or they will be liable for the injuries that result. We should be able to trust that our loved ones are being adequately provided for in all types of weather when they are under the care of nursing home staff. Many of them have medical conditions or take particular medications that make them especially vulnerable to heat-related complications. When nursing home negligence results in serious injury or death, an experienced nursing home attorney can help injured residents and their families recover for their losses.