Older People and Disasters – Vulnerability or Resilience?

In 2012, Jenny Neale and I worked on a report for the Earthquake Commission, with funding from their research grants programme. The report – Earthquake Preparedness in an Ageing Society: Learning from the experience of the Canterbury Earthquakes – appeared in February 2013 and can be found on the EQC website: http://www.eqc.govt.nz/sites/public_files/2341-earthquake-preparedness-ageing-society-2.pdf. In the report we brought together material from a range of sources – reports from public, private and voluntary sector organisations, research findings, expert opinions, media items and meeting proceedings. I am using material from this report in the next four blogs. Once again, I welcome your comments.

1. Older People and Disasters – Vulnerability or Resilience?

There are currently nearly 600,000 people aged 65 and over in New Zealand. This figure is likely to grow rapidly over the next 20 years as the “baby-boomers” age. The older population is itself ageing. The number of New Zealanders aged 85 and over is expected to increase by almost 500% between 2005 and 2051, when it will reach 320,000. Around 80% of people aged 65 and over live either alone or with a spouse/partner only. At age 85 plus, a third of men and two-thirds of women live alone. This means that, in the future, we will have very large numbers of very old people living mainly in their own homes in the community, many alone or with a spouse of similar age, many suffering from chronic illness or some level of disability and in need of support. This scenario explains why we felt this research was important. We think that recognition of these trends should be central to future planning for disaster relief and recovery.

Older people who have some level of disability or impairment are clearly among the groups who are most vulnerable in earthquakes or other disasters. The argument is that people who are frail use their whole bodily and mental capacity for basic survival; they may have no reserves to cope with additional stress. In earthquakes, older people may be unable to “drop, cover and hold” or quickly evacuate a building. If power goes out this can impact on life-support equipment, such as oxygen supply, heating, electric wheelchairs and water pumps. Damage to transport systems may mean that service providers (rescuers and home help services) cannot reach older people. In many situations, such as the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, older people suffer higher injury and death rates than other age groups. During Hurricane Katrina in the USA, 75% of those who died were aged over 60, while this age group represented only 16 % of the local population. Older people may require longer recovery from injury, but medical infrastructure (hospitals and rest homes) may have been damaged or destroyed.

Despite all this concentration on vulnerability, there is considerable evidence that older people also display resilience and stoicism in challenging situations, based on their life experience and accumulated wisdom. This contradicts the negative views. Some studies show that older people cope and recover relatively well, sometimes better than the younger ones. Some find no difference between younger and older survivors. Even after Hurricane Katrina and the stress of mass relocation, their prior experiences helped many older people to cope.

The Canterbury experience illustrated both vulnerability and resilience among older people. We heard a lot about the plight of rest home residents who had to be evacuated and retirement villagers whose homes were destroyed. We all feel for people stranded in damaged homes with little certainly about how and when things will be put right; and for those who have had to move away from their familiar surroundings and support networks.

But there is another story:

Michael Annear had begun a thesis on Active Ageing, but after the earthquakes struck he took the opportunity to record the responses of older people. His research participants kept diaries and took photographs – including wonderful views of improvised “dunnies”. The responses illustrated resilience and mutual help. Many older people coped well, using the September experience to prepare in the expectation of another earthquake. More able older people provided immediate support in their neighbourhoods, checking on less able elders and participating in emergency management teams. Specialised services are very valuable, of course, but the evidence shows that the most effective psycho-social support after a disaster comes from neighbours and communities. This may be more helpful than contact with professionals in the early stages. Like other groups, many older people suffered psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, which is understandable. What was unexpected, however, was how many of them leaped into action when the shaking stopped. As Michael says:

As a society, we are quick to forget that older adults have a lifetime of experiences, including exposure to previous disasters, which often help them cope much better than younger adults.

His research provides many examples of this resilience – providing support to family, friends and community members (for example, having people living with them); assisting in disaster recovery activities (being involved in community information centres, arranging forums for information and advice); engaging with social networks to give emotional and psychological support; and using the earthquakes as a source of spiritual growth or personal learning. Helping and caring for other people often assisted older people in their own recovery. Annear concludes that these findings challenge social stereotypes about older people and their vulnerability; that older people are a valuable resource for community recovery and family support and that the diversity and effectiveness of their coping styles offer valuable lessons for younger people. He calls older people the “unsung heroes in the aftermath of the earthquakes”.

One of the heroes is John Patterson (aged 75), who organised older people’s forums and called upon civic and national leaders, heads of insurance companies and other agencies to explain themselves. At the time of the April 2012 forum he challenged the myths about older people:

Younger people will be thinking “those oldies at their forum will be having a good chat over a cup of tea but they needn’t worry, we will look after them”. Look around this room. We have an ex-Mayor of Christchurch, an ex-Dean of the cathedral, an ex-cabinet minister. We have ex-builders, plumbers, school teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants, etc. We have an enormous amount of skills, talents, expertise, experience, know-how and wisdom. It is high time that the powers that be and leaders of this city recognised this. They should be looking for ways to use this huge and growing resource.

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
This entry was posted in Risks-loneliness and social isolation, EAN, discrimination. Bookmark the permalink.

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