By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As western Washington faces high levels of heat, senior citizens especially are at risk of health hazards. Nursing homes and retirement centers in the Chinatown-International District (CID) are taking measures to keep their residents safe.
But sometimes administrators and health care workers at these communities have to find creative ways to employ culturally appropriate methods of keeping their populations cool and hydrated.
“Some of the residents are more worried about getting a cold than anything else, so they continue to wear extra layers,” said Heidi Wong, director of the Healthy Aging and Wellness Program, which is the senior services division of the International Community Health Services and includes Legacy House Assisted Living, Adult Day Services, and the Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly, in an interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Legacy House, situated in the heart of the CID, is emblematic of both the challenges of caring for senior citizens from Asian cultures and the creative solutions.
From serving culturally appropriate liquids, to planning appealing activities, to luring residents to hydration stations, to sensitivities about air flow—the staff at Legacy House must consider cultural factors in order to be most effective.
But many older Chinese people—who constitute the majority of Legacy House’s residents—don’t believe in drinking cold water.
Their belief: it is harmful to the body and can cause gastrointestinal distress, even diarrhea.
So at Legacy House, besides water, there is a wide array of liquids.
“Legacy House residents are offered many beverage options at all meal and snack times, including juice, milk, soy milk, tea, coffee, and water,” said Wong. “Soy milk and tea are the most frequently requested beverages of choice. Every meal comes with a bowl of nutritious soup, which also helps with hydration.”
Luring residents out of their rooms and down to the first floor, which is air-conditioned, for regular hydration is another feat of cultural legerdemain.
Staff members sing songs from residents’ childhoods—in many cases Chinese songs from an earlier era, among many other activities.
This serves to keep residents in an air-conditioned space and allows staff members to monitor their hydration.
Still, even for those residents who prefer solitude in between meals or have microwaves, staff check on them multiple times a day, not only to deliver medication, but for wellness checks depending on their care plan.
At the same time, some older Chinese people don’t believe it’s healthy to have air flow from a fan blowing over them. They may think it could cause them to catch a cold.
While Legacy House does provide fans, staff members are careful to be sensitive to residents’ needs. Instead of a fan, staff members may also help a resident by securely opening a window for ventilation.
Some families also bring in portable air conditioners, which staff members help them set up.
While activities are ongoing during the week, Legacy House recently upped its offerings on weekends.
Now that it’s hot, these have been adapted, again, in culturally appropriate ways, to foster more hydration.
High tea is now served on both days in the afternoon, a practice reminiscent of the colonial era of Hong Kong.
And on all days, the last snack time is now at 9 p.m.—another chance for residents to fortify themselves with liquids.
Such measures are not overdone. The National Weather Service has issued an extreme heat alert at least through the middle of this week and possibly longer.
“This is expected to be a multi-day heat event, with the very warm overnight temperatures contributing to the higher HeatRisk levels,” according to an advisory issued Sunday.
Upper-level smoke and haze may contribute to the high temperatures.
During a heat wave, senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to dehydration, according to the National Council on Aging. As one ages, appetite and thirst diminish. So one may not even be aware of the need for replenishing fluids. In addition, older adult bodies change, leaving them with less water to begin with. Finally, many senior citizens require medications that can increase dehydration.
Even more disconcerting, a more recent study found that older adults’ bodies may not regulate temperature as efficiently.
For its part, Legacy House is an assisted living community. That means most residents retain mobility, although many may require help with one or more “activities of daily living,” such as dressing.
By contrast, Kin On’s skilled nursing community is mainly for residents who require bed care. (Kin On also has an assisted living apartment building, an adult family home, home care with certified personal care aides with language skills, and community-based wellness and social services programs.)
As such, Kin On has a 30-year-old HVAC system on its roof, which it described in a survey to the Department of Health as “very old.”
But in 2020, it installed split units in resident rooms. These provide cool air on demand.
“That’s why I thought,” said CEO Ketty Hsieh, “that the question of ‘How to keep people cool’ was a no-brainer.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.