Community groups in Burnaby and New West are gatherings fans to donate to seniors to help them cope with the summer heat expected this year. Shutterstock

Burnaby, New West groups preparing seniors for summer heat with fan donation drive

The campaign comes just weeks before the anniversary of last year’s heat dome—the most deadly weather event in Canadian history,

By Srushti Gangdev | May 27, 2022 |5:00 am

Community groups and local politicians in Burnaby and New Westminster are launching a campaign to gather fans and spray bottles to help seniors stay cool when the summer heat arrives.

The effort, which launches Friday, is being led by Burnaby Neighbourhood House, New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian’s office, Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Anne Kang’s office, the Seniors Service Society, and Burnaby Metrotown Rotary Club.

And it comes just weeks before the anniversary of last year’s heat dome—the most deadly weather event in Canadian history, with nearly 600 lives lost across BC.

According to a coroners report released in November, 63 of those who died were located in Burnaby and another 28 were located in New Westminster—meaning the two cities accounted for 15% of all deaths in the province.

69% of those who died in BC were over the age of 70, and 96% of deaths occurred in a residential setting.

While media and public health agencies had put out warnings in the days leading up to the heat dome, many British Columbians were caught off guard by the record-breaking temperatures.

This year, local organizations are trying to get ahead of a similar situation should it occur.

“We actually initiated something similar last summer during the heat dome that nobody actually expected—that was the first time I’ve ever felt 40 degree weather in the Lower Mainland. Neighbourhood House deliver[s] senior services, like support to vulnerable seniors. And these are the seniors that are quite frail and isolated in their homes. And when it started getting really hot, we knew that we had to do something,” said Burnaby Neighbourhood House (BNH) CEO Antonia Beck.

BNH began taking fans out to seniors that they were connected to through meal programs and food hubs. Beck said the idea this year is to have a more organized and coordinated response.

The groups are taking donations in Burnaby and New Westminster for fans, spray bottles, air conditioners, and anything else that might help people stay cool this summer.

Seniors most at risk

Beck said volunteers will also be writing out educational cards with tips for seniors on how to stay safe in extreme heat—something that may not come naturally to people who’ve lived their whole lives in our usually moderate climate.

“Just fans alone isn’t really the answer. It’s really a fan and a water bottle [to makeshift an air conditioner], that will be the answer for this expected heat event. And the other thing that I learned is that in seniors, as you get older, your body doesn’t regulate heat as well. So you don’t feel yourself getting hot, and so that’s why some seniors might slip away without realizing they’re slipping away,” Beck said.

“Also your medications might impact your ability to regulate heat, and then they may have other compounding illnesses—high blood pressure and that. And so it’s the seniors that are in their own homes that we’re most concerned about, and that we really want to help and support.”

Beck noted that Burnaby has one of the highest poverty rates for seniors in the province, meaning many people might not be able to afford their own fans or air conditioners—something that may have contributed to the high death toll last year, when the heat came on relatively suddenly.

While other tools like cooling centres will be available to the community this summer, seniors who live alone, who are most at risk to health impacts from heat, may not have transportation to get there.

“You’re dealing with seniors who are quite vulnerable, who don’t have a lot of resources,” she said.

The reality of climate change

Julian, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the low-rise apartment buildings—often the homes of people affected by the housing affordability crisis—are simply not built to weather extreme heat.

“The reality is that much of the housing in New Westminster and Burnaby is housing—particularly in older apartments—that is not air conditioned. And as a result, these people are more vulnerable,” he told the Beacon.

“So we have a housing crisis—a housing affordability crisis that leads people to take more affordable housing in these low-rise apartments that don’t have air conditioning. That’s where the vulnerable population resides.”

Julian said there’s a whole host of things British Columbians can do to keep their older neighbours safe, including donating fans and air conditioners, checking on those in your community, and utilizing cooling centres.

But even with the cold, rainy spring we’ve been having so far this year, Julian said the reality of climate change means we must be prepared for the possibility of another heat wave.

“It wasn’t expected last year, it was a surprise to all of us. We’ve just seen an extreme weather event in India. … So we cannot count, with climate change, on a normal summer. And this is why it’s so important,” he said.

“We stepped up together to try to make sure that seniors have the wherewithal, if and when the next crisis hits, and there’s no excluding that we could be facing another heat dome this summer.”

Julian noted that in “the appalling carnage” of the heat dome, the healthcare system was completely overloaded, and he said it’s entirely possible that a similar event could happen again.

Scientists have been clear that the heat waves BC experienced last summer, along with other extreme weather events witnessed here and around the world, are a direct result of climate change and will become more and more frequent.

If that thought makes you feel nervous or anxious, you’re not alone.

And Julian called climate anxiety a “healthy reaction” to what’s going on around us.

“There’s reason to be [anxious]. We had the heat dome, we had atmospheric rivers in the fall that were devastating to large parts of our province, there was loss of life, we saw massive flooded areas, the Lower Mainland was cut off from the rest of Canada for weeks,” he said.

“There are valid reasons to be concerned. And this is why we have to take action on climate change. We’re seeing worldwide events that are having catastrophic impacts.”

The Fans for Seniors Campaign is taking donations of fans, air coolers, and spray bottles at Burnaby Neighbourhood House, along with Julian’s constituency office #110-888 Carnarvon St in New Westminster and Anne Kang’s constituency office at #105-6411 Nelson Ave in Burnaby.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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