As The Netherlands is currently suffering from extreme heat this summer, it is worth reminding ourselves of the effects of the latest heatwave, which took place from 10-16 August, 2020. Worryingly, the excess mortality was 37% higher among people receiving long-term care than the average in the previous weeks. Especially senior citizens (people aged 65 and above) are vulnerable to the negative health effects of heatwaves. They often do not feel thirsty, and accordingly, they do not drink enough. Due to their reduced mobility, they have difficulties in moving to cooler places such as parks. They also cannot afford to buy air conditioners or sunscreens.
Erwin van Tuijl, Sylvia I. Bergh, and Ashley Richard Longman, argue in this blog, the need for frugal solutions to protect seniors against heat. Frugal solutions are both affordable as well as “simple” . This blog presents some frugal solutions they identified in a recent research project in The Hague, The Netherlands and also discuss challenges that hinder development and usage of these frugal solutions.
The need for simple solutions
Beyond affordable, solutions need to be simple in terms of easy to use and easy to access. However, not all solutions are easy to use. For example, digital apps and other “smart” solutions, such as a “smart beaker” – a cup with sensors and an app that warns when seniors need to drink – are regarded as too complex for seniors who for the most part still have limited digital skills in comparison to younger generations. And due to the limited mobility of seniors, (non-digital) solutions must be easy to use and to access. For instance, we found that for seniors with health problems (e.g., diseases like Multiple Sclerosis) it is difficult to take a cooling vest on and off without assistance. Furthermore, cooling vests might be difficult to obtain for seniors as they are only available online or in shops targeted to business customers. Simple alternatives are wet towels and cooling scarfs (that have a cooling effect for four to five hours). Both alternatives are easy to obtain and can be put on and taken off relatively easily.
A solution that is put in place in The Hague as well as other cities around the world are so-called cooling centres. These are dedicated cooled rooms (i.e., with air conditioning) in (semi)public buildings, such as schools, or libraries. However, will senior citizens really use such spaces? Even if transport was arranged for them, some of our respondents argued that seniors may prefer to stay at home during a heatwave due their limited mobility, and that they are at an increased risk of dehydration if they would undertake the trip to the cooling centre. Seniors now sometimes “flee” their hot apartments and sit in the hallways, leading to noise and other nuisances. Some of our respondents proposed turning their existing common rooms into a cooling centre instead by equipping it with an air conditioning unit.
So, while we identified a number of frugal solutions, both in the market and developed by the senior citizens themselves, we also observed demand and supply gaps. Especially smaller entrepreneurs we interviewed struggled to identify their “real” customer – should they talk to homeowners, tenants or representatives of individual retirement home and housing corporations, or rather with those working at the “headquarters” of retirement home chains or housing corporations? Indeed, the same type of organisation might have different ownership and organisational structures. For example, retirement homes can be owned by dedicated elderly care organisations, housing corporations or by real estate investors, and they can be managed in a decentralised way (e.g., per building) or centrally (from a headquarters).
Another issue is that heat health risks are still underestimated by most people in The Netherlands, partly due to the irregular occurrences of heatwaves and their usually short duration. This makes it hard for entrepreneurs to market their products, especially those products that are relatively new on the Dutch market, such as sun sails, cooling scarfs or clamp awnings. And when heatwaves strike, there is a sudden increase in demand, which entrepreneurs have limited capacity to respond to. Therefore, procurement officers in organisations such as senior housing agencies or elderly care centres would be well advised to view heat preparedness as a strategic priority rather than a short term and reactive solution, and prepare for heatwaves in advance. Public agencies could also create more opportunities for entrepreneurs and the “demand side”, i.e., users or those acting on behalf of users, to meet. Likewise, agencies should not only warn seniors and (informal) caregivers about the risks of heatwaves, but also inform them about frugal solutions that can be used to keep cool. Such actions could literally save lives.
Interested in the effects of heatwaves on vulnerable population groups in cities?
Read the full report of our applied research project which mapped the needs of independently living seniors in The Hague in order to adapt to heatwaves, the sustainable (frugal) solutions that exists, and the actions that the municipality could take to address these needs and thereby contribute to urban resilience. The project team conducted surveys and Focus Group Discussions with senior citizens, and interviews with representatives of the private sector, care organisations, housing corporations and policy makers.
About the authors
- Erwin van Tuijl, Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and at the International Centre for Frugal Innovation (ICFI), and visiting researcher and lecturer at the Division of Geography and Tourism, KU Leuven (Belgium).
- Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS)
- Ashley Richard Longman, Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Political Science and Public Administration, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.