Recent natural disasters such as the 2008 tornadoes in the southern United States, as well as the hurricanes of 2005 and the 1998 ice storms in Canada, cause tragedy and loss for individuals across the life span. Older adults caught in these disasters face additional challenges, such as medication management, sensory decline, and mobility limitations. Situational concerns, such as power outages that prevent the use of electronic wheelchairs and elevators, also occur. As gerontological nurses, we are well aware that the health challenges associated with natural disasters are severe for vulnerable populations.
Yet, it is important to focus on what is also evident—that aging may insulate some older adults from the psychological distress associated with natural disasters. Seplaki, Goldman, Weinstein, and Lin (2006) analyzed data on 1,160 older individuals from a national, longitudinal survey with interviews before and after the 1999 Taiwan earthquake. The psychological effects of damage were strongest among those ages 54 to 70. Their findings suggest that people who experience damage to their homes during a disaster are at risk of experiencing depressive symptoms, with the elderly population being more resilient than the near-elderly population. Yeung and Fung (2007) reported that older adults consistently experienced less anger than did younger adults at the peak of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong. Their data indicate that older adults may be better at emotional regulation than their younger counterparts; they react to a crisis with less anger and are better able to adapt their coping strategies to the changing environment.
Perhaps it is prior experience or resilience that permits older adults to bend with the winds rather than be broken by them. Certainly, as gerontological nurses, we need to promote the health and well-being of older adults during natural disasters, but it is nice to know that many of them may possess personal resources to help us in our work. Framing our work within a partnership perspective—older adults and gerontological nurses—is important to address the complexity of the challenges and to ensure an integrated and comprehensive approach to respond to natural disasters.
Sandra P. Hirst, PhD, RN, GNC(C)
Brenda Strafford Centre for Excellence In
Gerontological Nursing and
Faculty of Nursing,
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- Seplaki, CL, Goldman, N, Weinstein, M & Lin, YH2006. Before and after the 1999 Chi-Chi earthquake: Traumatic events and depressive symptoms in an older population. Social Science & Medicine, 62, 3121–3132. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.11.059 [CrossRef]
- Yeung, DY & Fung, HH2007. Age differences in coping and emotional responses toward SARS: A longitudinal study of Hong Kong Chinese. Aging & Mental Health, 11, 579–587. doi:10.1080/13607860601086355 [CrossRef]