We all have seen the devastating photos from Texas of the disastrous flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Block after block of devastation, families displaced or torn apart by flood waters that showed no mercy, shelters packed to overflowing and sports stadiums turned into makeshift camping sites. It seemed as every hour went by, the crisis worsened and more stories of horror emerged.
Interviews from the scene of the disaster showed the shock on the faces of those who sat in make-shelters just happy to be alive. Unfortunately, in the days and weeks ahead, the enormity of this life changing event will set in and many will begin to exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and need additional resources, which may or may not be available.
Survivors will begin to realize that all they had is gone. Life, as they knew it, no longer exists. Homes which provided comfort have been washed away. Photos, keepsakes, and memories are gone. There will be no Friday night trips to the restaurant, weekend soccer games or Saturday night mall excursions. The days will be about cleaning up, finding a new place to live, filling out insurance forms and struggling to keep the family focused. Many will be without jobs as their workplaces have been destroyed. Access to money will be limited as banks, too, have been destroyed and ATM machines are nothing more than waterlogged chunks of metal.
As I write this, another Hurricane is bearing down on the country's retirement state, Florida, which has one of if not the highest number of those over the age of 65. This time, it appears it will not be water, but the wind and storm surge that pose the biggest threats.
Given the demographics of Florida, we need to be concerned about the physical well-being of those who are older and elderly. It certainly is true that our elders are particularly at risk for physical injuries but there is something that they do possess that needs to be tapped into at times like this -- their wisdom.
Multiple research studies indicate that the psychological impact of natural disasters on older and elder adults have less of an impact than on middle aged adults. The reasons for this are two-fold:
Experience counts – it appears that older adults who have experienced such events have a better understanding of the process and how recovery tends to play out. Although the impact upon them when it comes to losing property and belongings can be huge, they tend to have better long-term psychological outcomes due to their reservoir of experience.
Age affects emotions – perhaps nature planned it this way that as we age, our emotional reactions to traumatic events tends to be tamped down. In situations like this, it appears that age is a protective factor.
These studies indicate that the group affected the most by such events are middle aged adults because they are caught in between their own children and their aging parents. The feel responsibility for both and tend to feel tremendous amounts of anxiety and in many cases, guilt.
This does not mean that all older adults will show a stoic reaction to disaster as everyone is different as are their reactions to such events. One other thing to add, although it appears elders are less affected by property loss, one of the most important things for them is the well-being of a pet. This must be factored in when moving our older adults during times of trauma.
What does all this mean?
Quite simply, our seniors are our most valuable resource. I would suggest strongly that in times of such catastrophic events, listen to those who have experience. Although our elders may appear physically frail, they pack an enormous amount of wisdom that we need to tap into during these times.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote, “The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man without trials”. Never forget that our elders are those polished gems and we need to allow them to shine during the darkest hours. You might be surprised by what we can learn from them.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.