Immediately after the earthquake of September 2010 and the much more destructive February 2011 event, older people had similar survival needs to everyone else. John Patterson (aged 75), from the north-east suburbs of Christchurch, provides a vivid personal account of February 22:
When it stopped we found we had no water, no electricity and we were locked in. All the doors leading to the outside were jammed. I got through to the garage, disengaged the garage door and pushed the door up. Looking down the drive, I could see the whole street was flooded. Water was bubbling out of the ground all over. It looked as if it was boiling. Then the sand started coming up. I put my gum boots on and went down the drive. I met a neighbour and we went checking other houses, particularly the houses where old people live. All were safe and well so we went back to inspect our own houses. The bricks on the back wall had collapsed; walls inside are all cracked, and doors sticking. There is a big crack in the concrete floor from one side of the house to the other, but for now the house is safe and liveable. There were cars stuck all over the place, one SUV was in a big hole in the middle of the road, it looked like a ship sinking at sea with its rear end sticking out of the road. It was just like the aftermath of an air-raid during the war. (John Patterson, (personal account, quoted with permission)
There were several initiatives to check on older people by phone – notably by the head office of the Ministry of Social Development, after both major quakes (using NZ Superannuation records). There were door-knocking campaigns by groups ranging from the Student Army to the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Age Concern. Other telephone contact services for older people were set up by GP practices, by Grey Power, the Alzheimers Society and Te Runanga of Ngai Tahu. But many older people were unwilling to admit to their needs and certainly did not want to leave home – their usual environment provided a sense of security. Immediate assistance came most frequently from family, friends and neighbours. Where they existed, Neighbourhood Support groups played a major part and were often led by the “young” old. Practical help was available through welfare centres and “hubs”. A team of liaison officers and Earthquake Support Coordinators drawn from the public and voluntary sectors played a valuable role, some specialising in needs of older people.
Older people were especially hit by difficulty in moving around, lack of transport and local services. Many had depended on dairies, service station shops and pharmacies, which were closed. Meals on Wheels ceased to operate for four days. It was difficult for home support services to reach clients, and many people found the lack of normal hygiene facilities difficult. Thousands of portable and chemical toilets were distributed. They remained in use for months in the worst-affected areas. In cold weather, using outdoor portable toilets became a trial, especially at night. Many older people had great difficulties with chemical toilets, which were too low for them to use, were heavy and hard to empty (there was also the problem of disposal of waste). Therapy Professionals (physiotherapists) advertised an over-chemical toilet frame – an enterprising response to the needs of older people. To ease the difficulties, an Age Concern community nurse suggested the use of black bags and kitty litter in toilets rather than using chemical or portable facilities.
As the winter came on, there was concern about home heating for vulnerable older people. Several were sent to hospitals to be kept warm. The Red Cross announced heating subsidies for people aged over 65 living in damaged homes. The subsidy paid $100 a month directly to electricity retailers (this offer was repeated in the winter of 2012). Reports suggested that older people were slow to apply for these grants. A Red Cross spokesperson said:
…the elderly should not be the part of society that just accepts everything. We really want people to apply for the grant. Elderly people are always the ones that go without when they shouldn’t.
The hazards of moving around in suburban areas – cracked footpaths, holes in the roads, flooding and liquefaction and disruption to bus services – made it difficult for older people and many didn’t leave their homes. Their risk of falls increased because of unstable floors and paths. Older people with cars often lost their confidence when confronted with broken and flooded streets. Many have not driven since.
The Vulnerable Persons Group, set up by the Canterbury District Health Board, coordinated health services for older people, especially those in hospitals and rest homes. Planning for a possible “bird flu” epidemic stood health services in good stead. Health-related initiatives included respite care for older people whose houses were uninhabitable or who had special medical needs, the evacuation of rest home residents within the region and to other centres around the country and their subsequent “repatriation”.
The value of the institutional responses must be recognised, but we should not overlook what happened at the “grass-roots” level in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Sue Carswell’s interviews with residents of rest homes and retirement villages found that supporting one another was one of the most important things which helped them to cope. John Patterson illustrated this response:
We have teams of counsellors going around the city but the best counsellor is the friend down the street who calls you to say they have the kettle on and to come round for a cuppa, or knowing you can nip next door any time you need a chat. It is neighbour looking after neighbour, friend looking after friend and families looking after each other that will get people through.
Community organisations also responded to the need for comfort, talk and support, as reported in The Christchurch Press:
Since late February, the St Albans Baptist Church has been running a soup kitchen, where older people could drop in for a free lunch. The new projects worker, Ginny Larsen, said some older people were too scared to set foot outside their house. “For those who are isolated, it’s about bringing back that enjoyment to their daily life and something to look forward to. Quite a few are in streets where their neighbours have gone. They are very isolated and if something happened to them, who’s going to know? Who’s looking out for them? Are they eating properly? Are they cooking for themselves?” Those who came to lunch started to feel better by talking to others and doing something normal, she said.