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Keeping it cool: new project aims to cool aged care homes naturally

A new research project led by University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) and Griffith University will look for innovative ways to keep aged care residents in Queensland cool during the harsh, hot summers.

The team – led by Professor Claudia Baldwin (USC) and Dr Tony Matthews (Griffith University) – have received a $127,493 Queensland Department of Environment and Science grant to investigate the impacts of greenery, like shrubs and trees, on aged care facilities and their residents, and use this information to develop a model  for the wider industry.

Writing in a piece for the Conversation last year, Matthews and Baldwin say pre-existing medical conditions make the elderly especially vulnerable to hot weather and that deaths of older people increase during extreme heat events.

They predict that as Australia’s population increases, and increasingly ages, and climate change worsens, extreme heat effects will have massive impacts on older Aussies.

“Heatwaves have killed more Australians than fires, floods and all other natural disasters combined,” Dr Matthews said.

“Remarkably, very little attention has been paid to the role of urban greenery in reducing heat stress for seniors.”

Not only will cooling the area surrounding aged care homes benefit the health of residents, it will inevitably reduce the costs associated with cooling homes, researchers say.

The team will conduct research and develop heat adaptation plans for industry partner UnitingCare’s Queensland facilities. Matthews said that adding greenery, like shrubs and trees, to reduce heat loads in aged care facilities would be the key focus of the study.

“This project involves providing leadership and capacity building for climate change adaptation in the aged care sector,” Professor Baldwin said.

“Reducing heat in aged care facilities will have multiple benefits for health, economic and social benefits for aged care providers, residents, staff and visitors, as well as contribute to biodiversity.”

The researchers believe this is the first research of its kind relating to aged care. The initial project will run for about 18 months and the team will then look to make recommendations on how best to manage heat around aged care homes.

“You have to consider things like location and proximity to buildings, you want to make sure you don’t have root encroachment or branches dropping, fire risk, things like that,” Matthews told the Brisbane Times.

“At the moment, what we’re leaning towards is shrubs with a morphology of between two and four metres high with broad leaves but with limited density, so not giant trees.”

The project team will also conduct sector-wide workshops across Queensland to determine whether heat adaptation plans could benefit other aged care facilities.

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