If you're old enough to remember when a storm of the century meant once every 100 years, it's a good idea to get ready for the next storm of the century.
The number and severity of major weather events have been growing recently. Long Island has been hit with two major tropical storms and a record-breaking blizzard in just the past 18 months. Whatever the reasons for the increasing intensity of these events, it is becoming clear that older adults have the biggest problems weathering storms and their aftermath.
"Some older people may have long-lasting negative mental and physical effects, in particular people who have become frail," says Elaine Wethington, a professor of human development at Cornell University who has studied the effects of storms on older adults.
The vulnerability of older people to severe storms became distinctly clear after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana in 2005. About 75 percent of the estimated 1,800 people killed by the storm were 60 or older. Many older people are more susceptible to trauma because they are already coping with serious illnesses, but making the problem worse is their resistance to leaving their homes for a shelter. Locally, this was evident in some areas during superstorm Sandy. "There were lots of people, particularly in the Rockaways, who didn't want to leave their house," Wethington says. "Older people underestimate the risks of damage to themselves and their houses."
After Katrina, public health officials around the country became more focused on getting the elderly out of harm's way. "This is exactly a lesson from Katrina, but it's also a lesson from the work that people in senior services in Florida have been doing for a decade," Wethington says. "The departments for the aging there know where every older person lives, whether that older person is getting services or not."
Ensuring safety still comes down to individuals and their families. Wethington notes that the Centers for Disease Control has an excellent hurricane preparedness guide on its website (bit.ly/CDC-hurricanes), but many of the oldest and most at-risk people aren't online. She advises adult children to access the information and discuss it with their parents.
And it's never too early to broach the idea that when the next major storm bears down, older adults should be prepared to leave their homes. "The hardest thing is overcoming resistance to taking it seriously," Wethington says. "If children keep bugging their parents, the parents do, eventually, come along."