Climate Change is a Direct Threat to Older Adults, Says Villanova Nursing Researcher in New Article

Gerontological nurses are in an important position to lessen the harm of climate change in older adults in practice, research, and policy

outdoor photo of Nursing's Ruth McDermott-Levy

VILLANOVA, Pa.— Climate change will impact the health of all populations, but for older adults there are unique vulnerabilities, such as normal physiological changes of aging, comorbidities, cognitive impairment, and mobility limitations. Ruth McDermott-Levy, PhD, MPH, MSN, FAAN and director of the Center for Global Health at Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, is the lead author of an article “Addressing the Health Risks of Climate Change in Older Adults,” published in the November issue of the Journal of Gerontological Nursing. The article provides a review of the research and practice resources as they relate to climate change and older adults.

“Gerontological nurses need to be prepared to address these specific issues of older adults in all practice settings. We want to help nurses understand climate change and the need for specific interventions to support climate adaptation for the older adult population,” McDermott-Levy says, noting that in 2018 the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—comprised of the world’s leading climate scientists—issued a sobering report about if increased greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate there could be catastrophic impacts on public health. Coauthors of the article are Ann Marie Kolanowski, PhD, RN, FAAN; Donna Marie Fick, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN; and climate scientist Michael Mann, PhD, all at Penn State University.

Though recent studies have addressed the issues of nurses and climate change, this article is one of the first to identify practice, research, and policy issues for climate change in older adults.

More than half of older adults in the U.S. live in areas that disproportionately experience the effects of heat waves, forest fires, hurricanes and coastal flooding. Pennsylvania, New York, California, Florida and Texas account for the top five states where older adults are concentrated. Older adults who live in urban areas are vulnerable to “heat island effect” – the concentration and retention of heat in urban areas compared to rural areas. This places older residents in cities at increased risk of heat related illnesses and death.  

“It is everyone’s responsibility to learn about climate change and participate in slowing the trajectory of climate change,” McDermott-Levy says. “Gerontological nurses are in an important position to lessen the harm of climate change in older adults in practice, research, and policy.”

Climate change impacts require modifications in health plans for older adults. For example, prolonged heat will require greater needs for hydration, but the patient’s other conditions need to be considered as well. Elders with heart disease and renal failure will require astute nursing assessments to monitor the balance of hydration and electrolytes while not leading to fluid overload or electrolyte imbalances in the presence of extreme heat.

The authors suggest that nurses can design and participate in research to better document and measure the harm and impact of climate change on older adults and can advocate for policies that support older adults in disasters or extreme weather events. They can join organizations that are resources for education about climate change, address best practices for healthcare organizations, and share sustainable practices within their own communities and with older adults. Nurses must also collaborate with climate scientists and policy makers to develop policies and programs that rely on climate and health evidence to support climate mitigation and adaptation for the older adult.

Additionally, nurses need to be aware of all federal, state, local and agency-based emergency procedures in their region and assure that there are contingency plans for loss of power at home and clinical settings. There are added concerns for older adults who experience stress and anxiety created by extreme weather events and disasters, which can affect the mental and cognitive health of patients with dementia and may cause delirium.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit www.villanova.edu.