Community group protecting the elderly during heatwaves and bushfires

Community group protecting the elderly during heatwaves and bushfires

16 Deceember 2016

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Australia —   As summer heats up, Australians invariably prepare for the dangers of bushfires — but what about the health dangers of heatwaves?

In the two weeks leading up to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria there were more than 370 heat-related deaths, predominately impacting the elderly.

Ready2Go is a community program based in Cockatoo, south-east of Melbourne, that is trying to combat the health risk of heatwaves for vulnerable members of their community.

The program matches elderly and disabled residents with a trained volunteer who will collect them and take them to a respite location on days of extreme heat and fire danger.

Sue Wales, lead volunteer for the Ready2Go program, said the initiative was inspired by vulnerable residents in her community expressing concern about their ability to leave their home if required.

“One lady was simply resigned to die due her health and mobility issues because she couldn’t leave her house and we thought, that isn’t good enough,” Ms Wales said.

The program, which recently won two Fire Awareness Awards, is now in its third year with 10 participants and 20 volunteers and is looking to expand into the nearby town of Emerald.

Bushfires and heatwaves double concerns

Residents in Cockatoo and the surrounding towns not only experience high temperatures throughout summer, they are also living within a bushfire prone area.

Project coordinator Fiona Sewell said there was the added difficulty of tackling both issues at once.

“When it comes to heat health, messages come from the Department of Health like draw the curtains, turn the air conditioning on and avoid going out if you can help it,” Ms Sewell said.

However, she said she believed, from a bushfire safety perspective, that this messaging could be quite contradictory because on days of extreme fire danger residents are encouraged to leave their homes.

“When you’re an elderly person who do you believe,” she asked.

Ms Sewell said the Ready2Go program helped to clarify this messaging by establishing heatwave or bushfire danger trigger points with participants.

When these trigger points are met, the Ready2Go volunteers spring into action and assist their assigned community member.

Safety and social benefits

Ms Wales said the program also helped to connect vulnerable residents with other people, giving them a social outlet that they would not have otherwise.

“They build a rapport so that they know that there is someone that is looking out for them — and for people on their own, that’s really important,” she said.

An 80-year-old Cockatoo resident who is a participant in the program, but did not want to be named, said the program allowed her the freedom to stay at home.

“Ready2Go has given me the peace of mind that someone is looking out for me on those bad days,” she said.

“Some of my family live overseas and those who live here can’t always be here for me.”

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