Disasters separate the young from the old

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A few weeks back, I wrote about the importance of updating nursing homes to better accommodate a new generation of older residents — changing procedures for pandemic-related events and improving the general atmosphere from a “retro diner” energy. 

However, I realized that while improving the day-to-day environment is important for older adults, it’s the notion of resilience in the face of danger that determines a person’s quality of life as they get older. 

With that being said, the recent tragedies in Louisiana nursing homes spotlight an absolute need to incorporate and address the needs of older adults during the planning phase of any government-related intervention. The undignified and terrifying final moments for these older adults, trapped within their own living space as water levels continued to rise, should never have happened in the first place.

It is without question that natural disasters are dangerous — that’s why they’re called disasters. However, these events will negatively impact groups to different degrees. 

First, environmental stressors fluctuate after natural disasters and affect the body in different ways. From flooding to wildfires, these destructive events dramatically tilt the balance, or homeostasis, of those ecosystems. 

Regarding age, the body’s response to said changes will change as you get older. Take the heat in Los Angeles, for example. On a molecular and physiological level, a younger person’s body responds to something as simple as a few ticks up on the global thermometer much differently  compared to the bodies of older people. The body naturally undergoes wear and tear throughout the life course, making it harder to adjust to external stressors with age. 

That doesn’t mean that all older people break like a twig during a hurricane or forget what an earthquake feels like, per se. It’s key to reeducate and build upon existing knowledge by improving preparation strategies to new pieces of equipment for periods of isolation. 

Socioeconomic status also mediates natural disasters’ impact on certain individuals. On a much grander scale than L.A., countries such as the United States and Japan demonstrate better resilience and response to natural disasters compared to less affluent countries such as the Philippines or Bangladesh. Nevertheless, this does not excuse the exclusion of older adults from preparedness plans.

“But Lois,” you, being the inquisitive reader, say. “It would be genuinely unethical and immoral if there were no texts mentioning how to take care of older adults in a natural disaster. I mean, they are and have been considered a vulnerable population.”

You’re right, but the inclusion of older adults in text can be compared to the genomic breakdown of a mule — half-assed. Especially for older people who utilize assisted mobility devices such as wheelchairs or walkers, evacuation protocols suggest that just leaving them behind may be the easier way to go. Something as simple as accessible bus ramps could have helped hundreds of older adults evacuate during Hurricane Katrina, given that many emergency shelters were either at capacity or were not accessibility-friendly for incapacitated individuals. These protocols have also failed to prevent instances of abuse and fraud that exponentially increase following a natural disaster. 

At the end of the day, it is unfortunately unsurprising that older people often make up the majority of deaths and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder following natural disasters. Over half of Hurricane Katrina victims were 75 and older. Following the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake, PTSD rates among older people increased dramatically compared to that of younger people. In Puerto Rico, many older people with comorbidities were trapped and stranded after hospitals allocated inadequate space for them following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

If adequately developed, evacuation efforts can even reduce the survival chances of older people, and many older adults often refuse to leave their homes given family history or finance-related issues.

Ultimately, we should still develop plans that actually work and actually consider older people’s needs. Let’s educate local communities and allocate resources that support and increase the survival rates of older people in times of crisis. 

Once climate change reaches the breaking point or some apocalyptic event strikes, we might be glad that our grandchildren also included us in the evacuation game plan, thinking, “Back in my day…” 

Lois Angelo is a junior writing about the timeless lessons learned from older adults. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back in My Day,” runs every other Friday.