A nonprofit that oversees senior Vermont housing communities says there’s no way it could have prevented an elderly woman from dying at its Essex Jct. property during the recent heat wave.
Mary Myott, 79, died sometime on the afternoon of July 3. Her official cause of death is listed as hyperthermia, a conclusion reached after she was found dead on the floor in a sweltering Whitcomb Woods apartment. According to her death certificate, temperatures inside peaked at 115 degrees.
Myott’s death came amid last month’s relentless heat wave that found several other Vermonters succumbing to heat-related illnesses. But some residents here questioned how this could happen at a senior housing facility run by Cathedral Square, whose website boasts more than 40 years of “healthy homes, caring communities and positive aging.”
Whitcomb Woods is an independent living facility, a distinction that, unlike other senior housing, doesn’t require licensure.
“Independent living is really just another apartment building,” said Pam Cota, the licensing chief for the Vt. Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. That means properties like Whitcomb Woods are governed like any other landlord-tenant relationship.
For example, state law requires landlords give 48-hour notice prior to entering a tenant’s premises uninvited – a rule often invoked for inspections or showings – and while they must provide heating, electricity and water, they don’t have to provide cooling measures.
Whitcomb Woods installs AC units for tenants who purchase their own, and marketing and outreach director Deb Bouton said staff waived the usual $20 installation fee during the heat wave. Bouton noted about a third of the complex doesn’t have AC in their apartments, so staff also set up a temporary cooling station – a room with AC – in the complex’s offices.
Staff had encouraged Myott to head down there, and hours before her death, several family members did the same. But she demurred.
“Everybody’s really sad about it, but people have the right to make poor decisions: free will,” Bouton said. “Unfortunately, in this case, it was clearly a fatal decision.”
Myott’s choice to stay home may seem irresponsible, but it didn’t surprise her friend, Patricia Myott.
“She wouldn’t want to be imposing on anybody or anything,” Patricia Myott said. “She was that sort of a woman.”
Patricia remained one of Myott’s few close friends despite their unique relationship. She is married to Myott’s ex-husband. Patricia described her friend as a “hard-working lady” who never asked “anybody for anything” despite living a hard life.
Myott began drinking at 16 and continued her heavy alcohol use for decades, holding down a waitress job for most of her adult years, Patricia said. Myott moved into her second-floor apartment at Whitcomb Woods about six years ago after she sold her home at the trailer park across from Fanny Allen, and though she had several close friends, she mostly kept to herself.
Her death appeared as a blip in Vermont media outlets. Most couched it in broad strokes, describing the heat wave’s toll, and at least one mentioned her chronic alcohol use as a contributing factor – an observation noted on her death certificate.
Patricia said that frustrated her because Myott achieved sobriety in her late 60s and proudly remained so for the last 12 years of her life. Even though a history of drinking made Myott’s final years difficult, Patricia believes more could have been done to prevent her friend’s untimely death.
She understands it would be a major renovation to install central air throughout the Whitcomb Woods property and acknowledged equipping each unit with an air conditioner is probably not cost effective given the rarity of heat waves here. But there are cheaper ways to ensure tenants’ safety, she suggested.
“How hard is it to do a sweep, going down the hallway and knocking on doors?” Patricia asked.
Cathedral Square oversees 29 other senior housing or special needs living facilities in addition to Whitcomb Woods. The organization houses over 1,100 people, more than 60 of whom live on the Essex Jct. property.
Affordable senior housing organizations are poised to assume an even greater role in the coming decades as the nation’s population ages. That’s doubly true in Vermont, a state increasingly defined by its aging population, and for good reason: The Vermont Housing Finance Agency reports that nearly one of every four Vermonters will be 65 or older by 2030. By then, the state’s median age is also expected to climb to 44 – five years older than the projected national average.
Whitcomb Woods accepts Section 8 vouchers that allow residents to pay about 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent. Eligible residents must either be disabled or 62 or older and make an individual income of below $29,400 per year.
Perpetual affordability is vital for seniors like Myott, whose main source of income was Social Security. The federal government says these payments to individuals who live independently hover around $800 per month.
Plus, Cathedral Square has partnered with the Support and Services at Home program in many Vermont communities, offering voluntary, free health services for their senior tenants without having to leave their home. SASH links participants with a coordinator and wellness nurse, who checks in regularly.
“We don’t just look at the people who live there as tenants. We look at them as somewhat of an extended family,” said Bouton, the spokeswoman. “The staff really cares about all the residents and makes every effort to keep them safe and healthy.”
Patricia isn’t convinced. She said incidents like what happened to her friend are exactly why she’s staved off suggestions to move into a senior housing complex after the death of her husband last summer.
Immediately after learning how Myott died, Patricia called her sister-in-law, who’s currently on a waitlist for senior housing. Knowing Whitcomb Woods was a potential landing spot, Patricia offered some free advice.
“You really need to get in a safer place,” she said.
Seniors are prone to heat-related health problems because their bodies don’t adjust as well to sudden temperature changes, spurring a common refrain during summer’s hottest days: check in on the elderly. In a statement issued earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott urged Vermonters to do just that.
But Bouton said Myott’s death emphasizes that older adults need to be “mindful” of the need to get out of the heat. She said the loss saddened everyone at Cathedral Square, yet confirmed the organization won’t change any policies because it already makes sure people have a safe place to go during weather events.
“You can’t force someone to do something that they don’t want to do,” she said.