ELAINE WETHINGTON: My unofficial title for this talk is Hurricane Sandy, a Story Foretold in New York City. The reason this was a story foretold is that there has been a growing interest in aging, the aging population, and how that's going to intersect and cause unusual and interesting and perhaps dangerous problems as the climate changes in the United States.
Increasing drought, increasing heat in the South, where a lot of older people have settled. And of course, rising sea levels. And more controversially, whether they're going to be more large storms such as your Hurricane Sandy in the New York area and along New Jersey, where, frankly, we're not used to storms like in this area of the country.
What I'm going to talk about is a Cornell initiative that began in the last five years, which has been focused on understanding the relationship between future life of older adults and climate change. And how older adults themselves and their children can be involved in promoting resilience among older people as the climate changes.
I'm also going to talk about the risk factors that we know are developing in the older population and as our society becomes more dominated by older people. I'm going to talk also specifically about one of the most under discussed of the risk factors for coping with disaster, lack of social integration with others or social isolation.
And also going to be talking about potential interventions and solutions that we've been developing, whether recommendations we'd make at the policy level other than that huge New York state report about how the infrastructure needs to be hardened. We agree that that needs to be done too. But we also think there could be some social interventions at the community level that would be protective of older people.
And also at the more granular or micro level, what families can do. I'm much engaged in that myself as parents and parents in-laws have aged. I have been associated with the Cornell Edward R. Roybal Center since 1993. It's been continuously funded by the National Institute on Aging. And since 2003, we've actually done most of our research down here in New York City.
The focus of the Cornell Roybal Center, it's one of 13 centers funded nationwide by the National Institutes of Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. And our focus has always been on social isolation and the health risks associated with it. The risk of death among older people who are socially isolated is greater than the risk of death among older people who smoke.
They have a higher risk of death going forward than older people who smoke. This is one of those unknown facts. But apparently what social isolation does is it puts people in a situation where they are predisposed to be more vulnerable to risks and disasters and stressors as they come along.
Currently, our Roybal Center is focused on pain in later life, which also is associated with social isolation in older life. Now, the Aging and the Environment Initiative was started in 2008. And it was sponsored by our Roybal Center, which was directed by Karl Pillemer at that time, who some of you may have met or know about. He's the author of the Legacy Project at Cornell.
And we also got money from the Atkinson Center at Cornell, which is focused on a sustainable future. And it was, as near as we could tell, the first major initiative in New York state to talk about aging and climate change. And we got together. People who do research on the physiological vulnerability of people as they age from Boston University, Washington DC, and also representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
All of them came to Ithica. We met for two days. We wrote five position papers-- I was the author of one-- about looking forward to the future. How are older people specifically going to be affected by climate change. But also, the other focus of this was how can older people be engaged in helping to cope with climate change. How can we take advantage of the natural resilience that you find among older people in the community, rather than just focusing on their risks?
And we published brief reports in the AARP popular journal Generations in the year 2009. So you can actually go there and read short versions of the reports that came out of this conference. And then also, in the year 2010, the leaders of this group published a set of 45 recommendations for coping with population aging and climate change in the Journal of Aging and Health.
So we've published quite a bit on this and we were very happy to see, when the Environmental Protection Agency this January published a review of important work on aging and climate change, they featured our work very prominently in it. We were one of the few groups that has done this.
Now, what prompted our thinking about this? Well, big events, right? And the one that even in retrospect seems actually quite shocking is the deaths that were associated with Hurricane Katrina. This is a picture looking over the Lower Ninth Ward out near Lake Borgne, I think, which of course flooded. And one of the little known facts about Hurricane Katrina is that over half of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina were age 65 and over. Yes. Over half. Yes?
AUDIENCE: So what percentage of the population in general was over 65?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It was about 23%. So disproportionately more likely to die. That's a great question. But this is true, this is actually true of disasters in general. Older people are the most vulnerable. Older people and younger people are more likely to die during disasters. They're more vulnerable to heat, they're more vulnerable to flooding.
And the New York Times published sort of an informal list of people who died in the New York, New Jersey area due to Hurricane Sandy. And I noted that 50% were age 65 and older.
AUDIENCE: How many? 65 [INAUDIBLE].
ELAINE WETHINGTON: 50%. If you go down to age 60, it's more like 65%. And they died for the same kinds of reasons that are documented for people in the community dying during her Hurricane Katrina. Some died in transportation accidents, OK? Unused to driving, came out too late.
But the majority of those who died were actually trapped in their homes. And they either drowned or had heart attacks or things that were related to their health conditions caused them to die during the hurricane. You could say that New Orleans was way under prepared for what it could have done in Katrina.
Because Florida, after the year of the three hurricanes, that was 2004, Charley and Ivan and I can't remember the name of the third. Noted three things that seemed to be extremely important. Number one, that older people tended to live in the most dangerous areas in Florida.
Number two, they were the least likely to evacuate. OK? Everyone's saying yes. You have older parents, you're saying yes. They're not going to leave their house, they're going to the pets. And number three, older people were disproportionately more likely to die, even in Florida. But that fact was under appreciated because, you know, the age of the Florida population is so much higher. But it was disproportionate in Florida as well.
And in fact, there were some very-- to get ahead a little bit of what I'm going to say-- there were some very disorderly evacuations from nursing homes and assisted living centers during those three hurricanes. OK? Which seemed to lead to excess deaths of older people. Now, in our own work at the initiative on aging and the environment, we've looked at factors, we've reviewed and done specific research on factors which we think are associated with vulnerability for older people during disaster. And there are physical factors associated with it.
There's a lot of research that's now established that older people are much more sensitive to environmental pollutants, particulate matter, infectious diseases where the number of the exposure to the vectors like mosquitoes increase in events such as floods. OK? It's also an increasing risk factor that a number of older people live alone and want to live alone. And many of these older people are aging in place but becoming quite frail.
And this is due to the way, you know, modern diseases are managed. People are now maintained at home on medications and with various types of health care rather than being put someplace else, OK? So there are many frail older people who are living alone or are living with another older person.
And then, of course, they're no longer driving, many are no longer driving. Or they find it very difficult to use public transportation or public transportation is not really available. Or in the case of Hurricane Sandy, it was essentially wiped out in some parts of New York. OK? So older adults could not get out, and a number of frailer adults were stranded in their homes. As the media in New York City actually have very well documented, a number of really quite wonderful articles at the New York Times about these works.
Another issue is location. And most of this work actually has been done by political scientists and economists who have been looking at amentity-driven moves of older people, trying to predict the future. And one of them, Stephanie Cutter, who's I think still at the University of North Carolina, has demonstrated that a higher proportion of older people live near areas that are vulnerable to storm effects than any other group in the United States.
And it comes from the top and it comes at the bottom, OK, that amenity-driven moves take you to the water. OK? And poor older adults tend to live in areas that are prone to flooding, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and a number of other parishes in New Orleans, where there was serious flooding. These were mostly inhabited by poorer people and many of them were older. And older people were disproportionately less able to leave. OK?
Another factor in the literature is social isolation. OK, this has always been our particular focus in our Roybal Center. Living alone and having limited interaction with others is how you define social isolation. It increases, it's known to increase as people age. OK?
Something like 80% of women over the age of 85 in the United States live alone. They live alone and not all of them are socially isolated because many of them still maintain social ties. But a high proportion of them probably would be classified as at least partly socially isolated a good part of the time.
And another issue is personal factors. Having to do with perhaps this particular cohort of aging people, but also social and cultural factors in the United States. People are reluctant to seek services and to get help because it threatens their isolation. They have a desire to maintain their independence.
That is a real value among older people in the United States. It's a real value among their children, too, obviously. And a reluctance to bother children and others, a desire to do things by oneself. This is a very powerful motivation. And those of us who interact with older people on a daily basis realize how powerful it is here.
And so the indicators of social isolation that we have studied and which we considered to be among the most powerful was this sort of combination of living alone, no longer being married, being childless or not having a child close, living close to you, lack of social interaction with others, having very few people who we would name as part of your social network. OK.
And researchers know who becomes socially isolated. One of the things we've done in the Roybal Center is we've conducted scientific reviews of the literature, such as it exists for predicts who becomes socially isolated as they grow older. And it's the things you would expect. Marriage and other role losses, people who live alone in middle age tend to live alone into older adulthood.
The number of people now who live alone in the United States is at a record high, including among those who were in late middle age. And they're likely to carry that habit forward, so probably going to be going forward with more older people living alone than less. Health problems and disability, poverty is associated with social isolation because poor people have smaller social networks.
The family factors that are affecting the baby boomers that are going to have an impact as we go forward. There's a record number of people who are unmarried turning age 65 every year in the United States. And most of our social--
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Soon it's going to be every 10 seconds. I'll tell you, there's a lot of us. There are a lot of us, I'm in one of those big cohorts. And with the increasing divorce rate and declining fertility, the risk looking ahead looks pretty bad. And of course, something which I think may be particularly important in the New York area, non-English speaking or people who develop less facility with English, immigrants, are more likely to be socially isolated going forward.
Now, I think it's important to remember when you think about an intervention, you know, how are we going to cope with all this? Because it looks kind of scary when you look ahead. Is that social isolation is at least partially driven by choice and preference. It's our habit of living.
Eric Klinenberg, New York University, just wrote a really-- I'm a fan of this book, Going Solo, where he talks about the ideology in the United States about how good it is to be alone and to live alone. And he connects it to all sorts of cultural and economic factors in the United States. But also says, but you know, when you get old, this is probably not such a good thing.
And at the Roybal Center, we couldn't agree with him more. But it does seem to be driven by older people's behaviors and their preferences for living. In the United States, people's social networks get smaller as they age, as they age to the life transitions you expect to old age.
They also state that they prefer to get social support and help from a few close people rather than from people that they don't know. Often they prefer to get help from other older people rather than younger people, people who are like them. Networks shrink, often to just the favored child. Often, older adults will tell you they don't want to get help from that child, they want to get help from this child. OK, usually the older daughter.
And all these sorts of things, of course, are choices and preferences. But they may increase the vulnerability of the older person if there isn't some type of support or our outreach or intervention from families to make sure that the older person is prepared for disaster. OK.
One of the other things that we've done in the Roybal Center is conducted reviews of the successful interventions that have reduced social isolation. The one we've relied on most heavily is by [INAUDIBLE] but there have been three others published since then. Is that interventions to reduce social isolation or people's feelings of loneliness most effectively come by providing group peer support rather than one to one service intervention.
This isn't something we can normally expect social services for the aging to provide. It's almost too big a problem. So it has to come from a larger group than service provision through senior centers.
What seems to be a logical way to go in terms to in the future, thinking in the future, about help to sort of harden older people and the communities they live in against disaster is to shore up social infrastructure. Not just physical infrastructure, but social infrastructure.
And have you read the New York State report? Which is actually quite impressive about how to harden the physical infrastructure here in New York City. It's actually quite impressive, that report. There's a paragraph near the end that also says, and we should also be thinking about engaging community organizations. It's about a paragraph.
But it's sort of clear to us and the work that we've done that something like that probably will save a lot of lives, but among the most vulnerable, it may not be as effective. And that's because we really don't know in the New York City area or in New York in general where all older people live. You know? We kind of know but we don't know. We don't map them. Big brother, I know.
AUDIENCE: I'm part of a community emergency response team. After 9/11, each community board has a response team. And we have a loose network knowing if the power goes out, there's a woman with two cats on the 10th floor who needs saving. She's a little hard of hearing, checking on her. So we have that loose network.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: And those are good. Those are good. Actually, I know the research we've been doing in New York City would suggest that that's probably the most effective, is to have something at the community level. I was going to say, New York City is sounding like Indianapolis. I grew up in Indianapolis and it's filled with community, small community organizations like that.
AUDIENCE: Museums, too.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Yes.
AUDIENCE: By the river.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Oh. The Eiteljorg. That's a beautiful museum. Yeah. I grew up near there. So what Florida-- you have a question before I go further?
AUDIENCE: Very important to this, which you haven't got, is that the fastest growing cohort is above 100. The well elderly is a big cohort. And over 100 is a huge cohort, which should be noted, because that's a whole different parameter of concern. Because people are well until they're older. And they're living far longer because of so many medical and health advances, and so forth.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: And frailty can sneak up on them very quickly.
AUDIENCE: Well, if you're 110 you might.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: If you're 110 you are probably frail. I don't know many people who are 100 who are living alone in the United States.
AUDIENCE: I do [INAUDIBLE] died.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: But there are some. There are some. There's an estimate that something like 35% of all Americans over the age of 85 living alone are frail, and really can't be-- really shouldn't be taking care of themselves. But they're probably too frail to be taking care of themselves. There's a recent report from Health and Human Services. that that's the case. Yeah.
But yeah, older this older cohort is aging in place. Florida became aware of it. And Florida's a very dispersed set of settlements. And not everyone who lives in Florida is in a housing development where people all talk to one another. And they've begun mapping locations of all older people. And they've empowered local organizations to do that.
So it's a government private organization partnership. They've developed-- I mean, they really have a good strategy here. They developed multiple ways to reach older people. Not just through government and social service announcements, but through these small community groups, which they directly partner with.
They knew that they couldn't-- Florida, I think most of it is only like a foot above sea level. There's kind of no way to protect everyone from flooding. But you can try to get as many people out of the way as possible that you can.
They're still working on the issue that older people are less likely to follow evacuation orders. That's a very tough nut to crack. People want to protect their property. It's what they've got.
We're also in favor of promoting strategies through families. Not every older person in the future is going to have a family. They may have a friendship network, or a family-like network.
And one of the recommendations that seems to make sense to us given our work in other areas here in the New York area, is that baby boomers, in particular, should be engaging in disaster planning themselves. And through their own disaster planning, be engaging older relatives. And some of this is the repetition factor. Just keep repeating it.
I found that to be effective with an older mother. I just kept repeating it. I made it sort of a natural part of life. And we'd probably be very well-advised to think about where we are moving when we're retiring, and where we're staying, and thinking about not living in those vulnerable areas.
And kind of an insight we have from personally working with a lot of older people through intervention, and problems which are kind of tough to crack, is that you need to work with older people through their strengths. So an intervention in a family is not going to work if it's paternalistic, or if the threat is to become less independent. But to work with older people's desires to remain independent.
Building up personal resilience factors. Thinking about how to harden one's apartment or condo against disaster. Planning for disaster. And that's all I wanted to say as part of an introduction. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Quick question. What percentage of older people in your studies come from a multigenerational setting?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Very few.
AUDIENCE: Very few. Like less than 10%?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Less than 10%. We find that more commonly when we do-- we do some studies around Ithaca too. We find it more commonly up near Ithaca than in New York City. We do find that most older New Yorkers have family close by, and in the area.
So we did a study of people on Meals on Wheels. And although we found that there were about 5% of them who talked to no one but the driver, and had no other connections, most of them had family in the area who came in every other day. So their meals and-- they were cared for, in other words. So much for the myth that everyone in New York is socially isolated. I don't think they are. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Very important to this is the fact that isolation is also a factor in the expense of the alternative. If you go to assisted living, or other kinds of humanitarian residences, you have run through all your life savings. Whereas living alone, you'd pay the normal rent, you'd have your normal expenses.
And that is critical to everything here. And that's part of the reason. When you just say isolation, they're isolated. They're isolated, perhaps, because they say, I'm not going to spend $10,000 a month on care that I don't really want right now and need.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Exactly.
AUDIENCE: This detailed living [INAUDIBLE].
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Exactly. It makes more sense. It makes more sense, actually, for most families to maintain an older person alone in their apartment or house for as long as possible. Absolutely. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I just want to ask about the mapping, because that's pretty intriguing-- about mapping the older New Yorkers. What could that mean for services to them? What could it mean for the community if we knew where our older citizens were, just in case? What's the scenario, like after we map?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, I'll start with kind of a more extreme example, because that's also where the Roybal Center is working. The Roybal Center now is connected with the Centers for Disease Control Center for Prevention of Elder Abuse.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It's been established here in New York City. And one of the issues with detecting elder abuse is that you don't know where older people live. And in particular, older people who are abused are more likely to be those who don't go out, who are completely dependent on others.
Often the only person who knows that an older person may be living in a particular unit is a mailman, or perhaps a police person who goes through the neighborhood. So the mapping would-- there would be some benefit to the city, being able to plan interventions and services.
AUDIENCE: So are you advocating a census, if you will? To just kind of go door to door, see where things are over a several-year period of time.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: I would think that-- actually, that would be extremely expensive. And it's probably better to work through existing organizations like churches, religious organizations, and community memberships to estimate how many people live in an area. Kind of what we have now, but a bit more augmented. And getting more of these data together in order to be able to-- or to be able to estimate which areas will be particular hotspots.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Oh, yes. I'm sorry.
AUDIENCE: If you're asking us about New York we can all tell you. The Upper West side, particularly the Penn South houses, middle income housing built by labor unions. Besides just using your eyes, there were certain parameters in the city that we all know. Or certainly we don't know. Hidden people.
In my neighborhood we've got a mixture of Park Avenue and sort of-- I don't know what they call them-- senior apartments. Not old age homes. It's a little different. It's a little more invisible. But I deliver Thanksgiving dinner, so I can see the mixture.
But a lot of things that require research, you really just ask around. Ask the local storekeepers. Ask people who live in the neighborhood who lives here.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Exactly. Exactly.
AUDIENCE: It's a little easier than formal statistics.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It's local knowledge. Yeah. It's local knowledge. Would actually be pretty effective, because local people would also know how to evacuate too. How to get in and out of the neighborhood. Yes.
AUDIENCE: The census information is not detailed enough, or current enough.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, we can use it that way. We can use it that way. I don't know of anyone in New York who is using it this way exactly now.
Although there was a very interesting project done by Marianne Fahs-- who's a faculty member at Hunter College-- where she mapped the 2010 census against senior center use in New York City, in order to get a handle on what areas were being underserved. Or where the senior centers were not really penetrating with their services as effectively.
An organization such as the department for the aging, or it could be an emergency organization, or even the police and fire departments, would maintain a list of contact names in the community. And how this would work is that there would be, of course, the usual public service announcements. Like on the Weather Channel-- the hurricane is coming. But there would also be more direct communication with people who would be in a position to take action, or to get the message out.
New York City has this with people who run nursing homes and larger housing centers, and also with the NORCs. The city already does that. What it would just be is an expansion of the number of people who are informed about it.
Another way would be to connect everyone through New York Cares, which has been just a volunteer organization here in New York City that was actually very involved in Hurricane Sandy relief.
AUDIENCE: And would it involve then people going door to door? And what did NORCs do? I'm curious what the NORCs did here in Sandy.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: You know, I don't know what NORCs did. I know that the senior centers sent out their-- there are hundreds of them in the New York area. The senior centers sent out their case managers door to door, basically. Went out to all their clients.
But they only went out to the people who they knew who needed help. And generally, people who are receiving services really need help. And your local senior center knows who's getting meals, health aids support, all sorts of things, because that's coordinated. But they didn't have time to go to every door. They went out to where they knew there was someone in need.
Often, people would spontaneously ask for help. Or the older people who they were visiting would say, but my next door neighbor, he would just go to the center but he's really bad. And the case managers would go there.
But they even would say-- through the Roybal Center, we're actually connected to the Coalition of Senior Centers and Services, which is a big advocacy group for senior agencies in New York City. So we know most of the-- they're sort of connected to our center. And they told us the need is too big, really.
AUDIENCE: What was their-- You said that seniors are often reluctant to evacuate. Were the senior centers that went out to [INAUDIBLE] people? What's the reaction that they received, and in what way were they successful?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, they were able to evacuate some people. I heard reports from Queens and Brooklyn that the places to which people could evacuate were not all that well equipped.
Some of this, of course for Hurricane Sandy, had to do with the fact that the size of this hurricane was underestimated. So as late as just a couple hours before the hurricane they were like forecasting an eight-foot tide. And it ended to be 12 or 15. So I think that caught a lot of people by surprise.
But they didn't have really places to evacuate people to. And this is part of this really good New York state report. That they admit that New York City was unprepared, and there were few places to evacuate people to. New York City, unlike Florida, doesn't have these established evacuation areas to take people to.
AUDIENCE: The framework I think-- I'm not sure. But it seems to me just calling it extreme climate, which of course is usual through centuries. It's always extreme and not extreme. We always have niñas, and niños, and so forth.
But also including terrorist attacks. Because when the 9/11 terrorist attack happened there were many elderly who couldn't get what they needed. They couldn't go on the train. They couldn't get things. And of course, it redounded to the people who were around who knew that there were people here and there, to climb up the 25 flights to bring whatever needed.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: How did New York evacuate?
AUDIENCE: No, we didn't.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Did you evacuate lower than 14th Street?
AUDIENCE: Many, many people walked north, and stayed with friends.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: But then there had to have been some concerted effort to get older people who were frail.
AUDIENCE: Well, I was going to bring up NYU-- for Sandy, had 100 ambulances, or cars, or vehicles, to evacuate their preemie and their elderly group. 100. And they didn't lose anyone. They were able to evacuate all of them in dispatch.
Because Bloomberg has his faults, but he was I think a little bit on the money in terms of getting people to move preemptively. As opposed to Mr. Christie, who told people, get off the beach! Get out! Get out! Which worked to some extent, but I don't think it's as helpful.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: I had the same impression. I had the same impression too-- that Bloomberg actually is quite knowledgeable and effective at this. But no, they're also the-- I know that the New York City area after 9/11, and also after Sandy, got help from disaster teams from other states where there are tornadoes. My cousin from Indiana came out here with his volunteer fire crew to help evacuate in the Rockaways. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm hearing-- Earlier you mentioned some issues and problems, I guess with evacuations from nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, there was this-- in Florida, in the year of the three hurricanes, what was quite evident was that nursing homes needed evacuation plans. And needed to practice, and have evacuation plans in place, and be able to call in ambulances.
If you think about this, but in 2004 actually Florida wasn't organized that way. There were no plans to evacuate people out of nursing homes. They thought that they were far enough into the interior that there wouldn't be any problems with flooding.
And then this was sort of underlined in Katrina where there was one nursing home that was completely flooded, and the residents were left there because they had no evacuation plans. For nursing homes here in New York, it seems that there were some S about evacuations.
There was this one article in the Times about a nursing home that probably should have been evacuated. They took about 12 feet of water. And they were told to stay put. They were told to stay put, because it was thought that they could withstand-- they were going by the prediction, which was eight feet of water. And that the building would hold, and it wouldn't flood or take out the generator in the nursing home. But essentially, this nursing home had no power. And the residents were still there.
AUDIENCE: Were there any deaths [INAUDIBLE]?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Probably. I'm not sure. I'm not sure if specifically anyone died in the home. People can also die on evacuation buses. And that was part of the-- do you know that? That happens. Or like in Hurricane Ike.
And in Texas there was actually a bus with nursing home residents that crashed. And over 20 people died. So there's risks associated with evacuation too. And the city called it a "stay there." But the nursing home then had to be evacuated with a great expense later. Yes.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] is there anything we could adopt from the Japanese experience? Even though it's a different culture and they're much more community-minded. But are there aspects that we could adapt to our own use?
AUDIENCE: Eat more sushi. Become more Japanese. Eat more sushi.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: You know, I'm going to-- you've given me an idea. You've given me an idea. I have not looked at that.
AUDIENCE: They did amazingly.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: They did an amazing evacuation after the tsunami. That's correct.
AUDIENCE: I think the thing about the Japanese was that not only did they evacuate efficiently, effectively, but they didn't just dump people and say, well, now you are evacuated. Everything's fine. Because they realize that once you evacuate people you got to do something with them. They have to live. And it seems to me that was the key where the Japanese were very successful. And maybe we aren't.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: We aren't. Well, that's where Florida is way ahead, though, of New York. And that evacuation centers are well-equipped. And are being designed to accommodate older people. In other parts of the country where weather disasters are more frequent, like Tornado Alley, also evacuation centers are much better equipped. And are better equipped to deal with different-- we're just not used to disasters here in this part of the country, of this sort. We don't have category 5 tornadoes going through the city.
Or our house when I was growing up-- part of the house was swept away. I had a friend when I was an undergraduate where the house fell in around him from a tornado. Yeah, it was Palm Sunday, 1962. His house fell around him.
It's a matter I think of New York catching up, and beginning to understand that it needs to have disaster relief of a particular type at hand. Somehow we have to be able to figure out how to fund that. As well as hardening our infrastructure. And then all of this is part of that really excellent report from New York State. They've identified this as a important issue. Yes.
SPEAKER: Can I do a quick poll? How many people here have a go bag? One, two, three, four. OK. What's a go bag? It's a bag when it's time to go you take it and you leave. You have several days medication, you have personal needs, water, flashlight.
AUDIENCE: Toilet paper.
SPEAKER: Yes. Toilet paper.
AUDIENCE: Very important.
SPEAKER: Mosquito repellant. And--
AUDIENCE: Your passport.
SPEAKER: --Office of Emergency Management's website has all that information.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: As does the Center for Disease Control.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Yeah.
SPEAKER: So that way we're all prepared as individuals. Helps everyone else. You can be at your best. Sorry about that.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: No, but that's exactly right, though. If we are all individually prepared it's going to-- even as younger people, not quite older people-- it's going to have an impact on older people too.
AUDIENCE: How about other climate change scenarios? And what can be done? How will they affect the elderly, and what could be done [INAUDIBLE]?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, there's been a-- and I'm certainly not the expert on this. I would say Eric Klinenberg at New York University is-- who wrote the book Heat Wave-- about the Chicago heat wave. It's been very well-documented that older adults are more susceptible to heat. And also more susceptible to the diseases that come about when you have a hotter climate. He always says that the best thing you can do is just buy-- make sure everybody has an air conditioner.
AUDIENCE: Or fan.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Or fan.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Something. Be able to withstand the heat. Have the air moving.
AUDIENCE: Until the power goes out.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Until the power goes out. Then there has to be cooling centers that have generators that you have to be able to get people to. Buy yeah, it's a huge issue. Also younger people are more susceptible, too. Under the age of 15. It's a very famous study of a California heat wave in 2005. He's documented this.
AUDIENCE: I lived in Tunisia in the desert for a while, in the Sahara. And it's very hot. And it's cold at night. But the Tuareg, and the various people who live in the river tribes, have wonderful ways of living in the heat--
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Adaptation.
AUDIENCE: -- the air cooling. And it's just quite natural, and remarkable for its low resource usage. It's very sustainable cooling as it were. And they manage quite well.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: I'm with you. Maybe adopt things from Tunisia as well as Japan. Thinking about what can be done.
AUDIENCE: Well, there was life before air conditioning. And people managed very well. And every window in New York had an awning. Wonderful awnings. And they kept the heat off. Even poor people had poor awnings.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Had awnings over them.
AUDIENCE: But they had awnings.
AUDIENCE: When was this?
AUDIENCE: People-- what?
AUDIENCE: When was this?
ELAINE WETHINGTON: 1940s and '50s, '30s.
AUDIENCE: My childhood, dear.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: No, no, no, it's true.
AUDIENCE: No, really. Also, the buildings. If you look at older buildings they are built with cross ventilation, which is a very important thing. Now we've got solid chunks. Air can't even get into them. Of course people have to have air conditioning because you can't breathe.
So technology is its own worst enemy in some ways. You have a technology, and then you have to have a new technology which is going to take care of the problems that the other technology presented you with. So the next good thing isn't necessarily the next best thing.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It's sometimes the old thing.
AUDIENCE: You think you've solved one problem, but now you've opened a can of worms. And you've created another problem, which you now have to deal with.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Well, architectural accommodation. Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: And also, going back to some of the slides you have, friends of mine who lived in the Rockaways did not want to go away, even though they knew there would be a surge. Because the year before there had been a storm, and they had had their computer stolen, their bike stolen. Everything was stolen from their house because they did what they were told to do. To evacuate.
And then for Sandy they did not go. They said we're not losing everything in the house again, even though they were locked up and secured. And that's a very big reason--
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It's a real fear.
AUDIENCE: -- for people not to leave.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It is.
AUDIENCE: Of any age. They don't want to lose their home.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: It's a real fear. It's a real fear. And in Florida, people not wanting to leave their pets.
ELAINE WETHINGTON: Yeah. That was another really big thing with older people in Florida. No place to take their pets. Evacuation centers don't accommodate pets.
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After water poured into lower Manhattan subway lines, two million Con Ed customers lost power and Breezy Point took a direct Hurricane Sandy hit, Cornell University's Elaine Wethington now examines the toll on senior citizens in the wake of major storms and climate change.
Wethington, professor of human development, discusses
Aging in the Age of Climate Change, at a journalists-only luncheon on March 5.
As the climate changes, so does our understanding of old age. As the devastation of hurricanes Sandy and Irene showed, older adults - some of whom have limited mobility or depend on home nurses for vital care - are among the most vulnerable when major weather events paralyze city and regional transportation systems, medical facilities and other key infrastructure.
Many older New York City residents live alone, which makes them more vulnerable to social isolation in time of crisis and their health in response to severe stress. Tens of thousands of elderly who live alone have disabilities that would make response to evacuation orders more difficult.
Wethington has studied extensively how seniors respond to these high-stress events, social isolation and its impact on their mental and physical health. She will also share findings from research that draws on collaborations with Weill Cornell Medical Center through the federally funded Cornell Roybal Center for Translational Research on Aging.
About Inside Cornell: This event is part of a monthly series held in New York City featuring researchers and experts working at Cornell University's centers in Ithaca, Manhattan and around the world. The free, catered lunch sessions are on-the-record, and media members are welcome to record video and audio as desired.