4: What can we learn from the Canterbury Earthquake experience?

Just as the whole of the country felt the impact of the Canterbury earthquakes – individuals of all ages, organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors – so everyone can learn from it. Here are some of the points which emerged from our study.

The main message for older people is – be prepared

  • Older people can do a lot to help themselves. In disaster situations, outside help may not be immediately available.
  • Get involved in neighbourhood support groups and encourage groups who meet for social contact, hobbies and common interests to talk about how they can be prepared.
  • Get to know your neighbours.
  • Have current personal contact information at hand and find out where to go for information and help.
  • Have a “survival kit” ready, with water and food, medication, a wind-up radio, torches (not candles) and other essentials.
  • Keep a non-cordless landline phone (cordless phones depend on electricity).
  • Know how to turn the water supply off at the mains, so that damaged pipes and hot water cylinders do not cause problems.
  • Keep insurance policies comprehensive and up-to-date and become familiar with their coverage and processes (even more of a challenge with all the changes going on).

There are also lessons for people working with older people

  •  Information aimed at older people should not assume unrealistically high computer access and competency.  It should be well targeted – local free newspapers are a good channel.
  • Given the stoicism and reserve of many older people, support workers need to be more proactive to finding out their needs – don’t just knock on the door once and go away.
  • Identification and tracking methods for vulnerable older people are important. Should there be registers of such people? If so, should these be local or national, general or specific to particular circumstances, for example people living alone, or dementia sufferers. Any registers must be kept up to date; they must be coordinated with service providers and must respect privacy.
  • Psychological “first aid” after a disaster should include basic non-intrusive care with a focus on listening, assessing needs and ensuring basic needs are met.
  • Older people may need help with financial, legal and insurance matters. Accompany them to such meetings rather than simply making referrals.
  • Older people are a resource – make use of their resilience and strengths for recovery.

Some messages for planners and policy-makers

  • Pre-disaster planning is vital to ensure appropriate and timely responses and to avoid short-term decisions which may cause problems
  • There were many good examples of agencies and sectors working together after the Canterbury earthquakes. We can learn from this – this is what we should be aiming for.  No silos!
  • The challenge is to strengthen interaction between communities and local and national government, so that each does what it can do best (government is not so good at providing comforting chats and cups of tea, but it is beter at mobilising heavy equipment to repair sewers). This is preferable to government agencies trying to “do” recovery for communities, using a top down approach.
  • The strengths of the voluntary sector and volunteer action include enthusiasm, flexibility and adaptability. Recognise and support this; don’t hamper it.
  • Initial support for older people came mainly from friends, neighbours and family, so use the community development approach in disaster and recovery planning – facilitate and strengthen neighbourliness and connectedness; empower communities in their own recovery through self-help and local action.
  • The rebuilding of Christchurch is an opportunity to promote Age Friendly cities[1], as well as universal design in housing and public facilities, recognising the needs of an ageing population.
  • The loss of meeting places has had a serious impact on social wellbeing, especially for older people. In rebuilding the city, multi-purpose public buildings could be encouraged

Health services are important in the lives of many older people. There are “learnings” for them too-

  • Workers in older people’s health services need to be involved in disaster management planning; each area should have a disaster plan that focuses on older people.
  • A central emergency communications plan covering whole health system would help to coordinate activity, ensure good information for everyone and avoid conflicting messages.
  • GPs, the health professionals most likely to be in touch with older people, and Primary Health Organisations (PHOs), should be important elements in disaster planning.
  • All services for older people need to maintain comprehensive emergency contact details for their users, including next of kin contacts at home and work, locally and nationally. These need to be kept in multiple locations, in electronic and hard copy and updated regularly.
  • Aged care facilities and retirement villages should have emergency plans and ensure that residents know what to do. These facilities, as well as home support services, should explore how they can work together to maintain services.

Although the purpose of our report was to discuss the impacts of natural disasters on older people, these are not the only emergencies which they need to be prepared for. Robyn Tuohy’s Ph.D. research, although still in its early stages, shows that health emergencies are what older people need to think about and prepare for. They are probably more likely to experience these – falls, strokes, heart attacks– than earthquakes or tsunamis. In an ageing population, this is an important consideration for public education and policy responses.

Dr Judith A. Davey

Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor

Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

[1] The World Health Organisation has developed an Age Friendly Cities Framework that provides a useful checklist for: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community and health services. http://www.who.int/ageing/age_friendly_cities/en/index.html and http://www.who.int/ageing/publications/Age_friendly_cities_checklist.pdf.

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
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5 Responses to 4: What can we learn from the Canterbury Earthquake experience?

  1. Sue says:

    I thought the articule cover all aspects of such a situation. Help was given immediately after the disaster but some group to assist with insurance claims would be valuable. It seems so many people old and young were left in the lurch over following up claims. They weren’t aware who to turn to when their insurance company provided inadeque advise. Definitely Insurance companies need to fine print the areas not covered like the drive way outside your unit but nothing else that needs co-ordination before work commences. Otherwise the blog was extensive.


  2. Jim says:

    Nothing was stated that advised the elderly [and others] as to how we were to cope with the way we have been left in limbo by the Government, the Christchurch city Council and the various insurance companies.


  3. I thought the information given was a very full and comprehensive report. A lot to take in and to act on.


  4. Adrienne von Tunzelmann says:

    An excellent blog Judith, particularly for the way you have customised the messages and lessons for each of the parties that need to be thinking about – and acting on – emergency preparedness.



    Hi there i was hit very hard by the Earthquake and the builders were in for 8 to 9weeks and its not finished yet.
    but what i find re the earthquake how people of all ages..race and nationality came together to help and i know this made us all stronger in helping thoses worst off than us i know as member of Age Social Outings the elderly were looked after in there health and day to day needs.by persons unknown to them as a private person i say thank you to all the people that came to our aid from around the world what ever nationality we could not have survis with out you

    e with out you


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