By Katie Fallon
As the metro Atlanta area continues to swelter with extreme temperatures, the Fulton County Office of Aging is doing what it can to help some of the area’s most vulnerable residents cope.
Across the county, there are 19 senior centers and facilities serving as “cooling centers” to those ages 55 and older. In Sandy Springs, seniors can visit the Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Facility on Vernon Woods Drive to get out of the heat and participate in a number of recreational activities while also enjoying a cool, air-conditioned environment.
The oasis offered by Benson and its counterparts is part of “Operation Cool Breeze,” a countywide initiative that invites area seniors to spend their day relaxing in a nearby senior center rather than in their own home. While some residents may not have air conditioning at all, Benson’s director Andre Gregory said many others live on a fixed income and may choose to only run their air-conditioner for a few hours every day, a practice he said will not stave off heat exhaustion when temperatures reach the tripple-digit mark.
“They’re always looking for ways to cut back,” he said.
One of the goals of Operation Cool Breeze, Gregory said, is to simply stay in contact with the needs of elderly residents.
“The concerns we have are really just to keep in touch [with elderly residents] and make sure they have what they need,” Gregory said. “A lot of our seniors are alone. They’re not always prepared for things.”
Operation Cool Breeze, Gregory said, has evolved over the last six or seven years from simply giving out fans to elderly residents to now offering senior centers as daily respites from the oppressive heat.
Dr. Steven Katkowsky, director of Fulton County’s Department of Health and Wellness, said one of the most important ways for seniors to avoid the health problems associated with high temperatures is to know the warning signs and how to avoid the dangers altogether.
“Just having basic knowledge of heat exposure prevention can protect and save many lives,” Katkowsky said. “Air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illness and death and the county encourages people to utilize its facilities such as the health centers, public libraries and multipurpose senior centers to stay cool.”
Even for people with daily access to adequate air conditioning, outdoor leisure time can also prove problematic under the sweltering sun. According to the Department of Health and wellness, seniors are particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion. Symptoms of the affliction include nausea, mental confusion and excessive or no sweating.
“All summertime activity, whether playing or working outside, must be monitored and balanced with actions that help keep the body cool,” Katkowsky said.
Since Operation Cool Breeze began, Gregory said he has seen an increase in visitors at the Benson Facility, especially at meal time.
“Being a cooling center, we also serve breakfast and lunch,” Gregory said. “What I have noticed is an increase at our lunches.”
Water aerobics instructor Geri Goodson, 81, said visitors to the pool have remained steady during the prolonged high temperatures. She said participants can choose a specific class or the open swim period to enjoy the pool, but that there’s a reason the extreme heat hasn’t caused a dramatic increase in swimmers.
“A lot of people are out of town visiting their children and grandchildren during the summer,” Goodson said. “But those who aren’t out of town use the pool a lot. We’re beginning to see more and more people learn about the extended hours and come use the pool.”
Indeed, Benson has permanently extended its hours of operation and now opens at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and closes later on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 p.m. It is also now open for the first time on Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to noon.
To take part in Operation Cool Breeze at the Benson Facility, visitors need only to be age 55 or older. Fulton County residents can take part in the facility’s recreational activities for free. Non-county residents are asked to pay an annual fee of $100 to have access to the center’s programs.
All visitors have access to a variety of nutritional, educational, recreational and social activities at the Benson Facility. Programs include everything from open swim time at the Benson pool to a class to learn computer skills.
For a complete list of Fulton County health and senior centers, call the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness at 404-730-1211. For more information on preventing heat-related illnesses, visit www.co.fulton.ga.us.