Long-term Effects of Natural Disasters on the Elderly

May 26, 2011

Here in West Alabama, our communities are no strangers to severe weather and the damage that often accompanies it. However, this year’s devastating tornadoes have caused catastrophic damage with many more people affected than the usual spring storms. We all know that the two most vulnerable populations in any community are the children and the elderly. The elderly are particularly vulnerable after these experiences, because many of them believe themselves too old to rebuild or to see their communities rebuilt. Depression contributes to their deteriorating physical and mental condition.

In the last month, I have seen numerous letters, articles and e-mails, sharing the benefit of the experiences of other communities after natural disasters, especially those in New Orleans after Katrina, Nashville after the floods, and Galveston after Hurricane Ike. Uniformly, they warn us that the elderly are particularly vulnerable, even those who were not harmed by the storm and who sustained no damage.

The situation involving LaRocca Nursing Home in Tuscaloosa is a classic example. The building was damaged beyond repair in the tornado of April 27th. However, due to the excellent care given by the staff, none of the 51 residents died or were seriously injured. LaRocca was located father back in the devastated Alberta City neighborhood and rescuers were not able to evacuate the residents until well into the next day. The staff stayed with the residents, caring for them as best they could. Although none was seriously injured and all were transported safely to other facilities, 5 have died in the past month.

The consensus experience among these other communities is that there will be an increase in the death rate among the elderly of approximately 50% in the next 18 months, not because of physical injury, but due to the emotional and psychological trauma they have experienced from the storms. As individuals and communities, we need to better care for our elderly residents all the time, but after natural disasters of this magnitude, it is doubly important. Check on your elderly friends and relatives more often in the coming months. Encourage them to talk about their experiences and their grief. Spend time with them. Nurture them as you would like to be nurtured.

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