Senior citizens have always faced a serious health hazard with Valley heat, and now they're up against difficulties paying for everyday necessities during tough economic times.
Dialing up a thermostat, making fewer long trips, looking for tasks that require traveling and going to places where it's cool - such as malls or senior citizen centers - can help some of the elderly avoid the pitfalls of Valley summers.
But there are disadvantages to pinching pennies. Some older folks on a fixed income may not realize that by cutting back - or cutting off - air conditioning and fans they subject themselves to heat exhaustion, heatstroke or even death.
Local charity organizers and health officials expressed concern for the safety of senior citizens who attempt to cut costs.
"They can literally kill themselves," said Bob Evans, chief operating officer of United Food Bank in Mesa. "Some of the elderly dehydrate because they're trying to scrimp and cut corners by turning off their air conditioning."
Bob Langer, 65, of Fountain Hills, said rising gas prices changed the way he and his wife, Diana, made this year's annual trek home to Chicago. "I would have spent my stimulus check on gas," said Langer, who usually drives. On the way back, they'd stop in places like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park.
Not this year.
"About a week before we were scheduled to go, I figured out that it would cost a lot more to do all the driving we usually did, and that was before gas got to $4 a gallon," Bob Langer said. "It changed our plans totally. Locally, driving doesn't bother me. But with long distances, costs make a great difference. I can't imagine being in any of the Northern states and gas gets to $5, $6 a gallon. What do you do, stop your trip and head straight home?"
Kathy Brian, 77, drives to the Mesa Senior Center on North Macdonald five days a week but also worries about rising gas and utility prices.
"When I come here, I can turn my refrigeration down," said Brian, who sets her thermostat at around 84 when she's not home and 80 when she is. "I turn it up and open the windows when I go to bed. Gas is so high that it may get to the point I can't come here as often."
Director Leslie DeJong, who has worked at the Mesa center for 25 years, admits that attendance numbers are down a bit.
"People who live on fixed incomes have budgeted themselves," DeJong said. "Gas prices aren't just going up 4 cents a gallon a month anymore. This is right up there with the worst times I've seen. Senior citizens are worried."
A Centers for Disease Control report shows most heat-related deaths occur during the summer months, and the elderly are among those most at risk. Particularly elderly people who live in warm-weather climates with regular periods of intense summer heat are at risk for fatal heatstroke.
Arizona health practitioners and the CDC researched cases of heat-related death and illness in the country and state. Findings indicated that from 1979-2002, 4,780 deaths in the United States were heat-related.
Salt River Project and other utilities said they try to help senior citizens on tight budgets. Arizona Public Service Co. offers Project Service to Help Arizonans with Relief on Energy (SHARE) for those who need assistance paying their gas and electric bills. Among other things, SRP offers a program called Safety Net to let a third party know if someone's bill becomes delinquent.
What's the best way senior citizens can help themselves?
Ask for help and take advice long before considering cutting back on necessities, such as electricity for air conditioning.
"They can be told what to do and we and other agencies can put out the word of the dangers they face, but they have to be receptive," said Evans, who is 60. "Is there some stubbornness in the elderly population? Sure, there's obstinacy. I see it in my own parents and, to some extent, me at my age."