During Hurricane Katrina, the media reported about abandoned nursing home residents, older adults who refused to leave their own abodes, and the needs of grandparent-led families. Since then, however, not much information has been gleaned about the elderly in the devastated region. Researchers Karen Roberto and Tammy Henderson, both faculty members at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech, are teaming with Yoshinori Kamo, a sociology professor from Louisiana State University, to identify factors that influence how aging families function as they struggle to regain a sense of normalcy.

“Aging families have basically remained invisible; we are concerned not only about their immediate welfare, but about who and what is helping these seniors to regain some stability and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of this natural disaster,” said Roberto.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the team is in the process of interviewing 100 aging families who have been displaced because of Hurricane Katrina, and 100 elderly long-term residents of Baton Rouge, who are coping with the overnight transformation of their community. The families are comprised of persons 60 years of age or older, grandparents rearing grandchildren, or caregivers of aging adults.

Specifically, the team will identify: (a) how aging families respond to changes in their daily lives as decision-making is imposed on them by governmental, community service, and volunteer agencies; and (b) key individual, family, and community level variables that predict effective functioning among aging families under extreme duress. Based on the data collected during this one-year project, the team will develop a Research Brief for distribution to community leaders, service providers, and policymakers. The brief will explore the issues and challenges facing aging families under unusual duress, which has implications for culturally competent practices. This information will be used to augment or construct disaster prevention and intervention programs for aging families.

“I am impressed by the diversity among aging families, and their remarkable resiliency, values, and strong family ties, which serve as mechanisms of survival,” said Henderson. “One woman who never received welfare and who worked to buy her home now desires to rebuild her home. Her determined need to rebuild her house remains salient despite the fact that she just received the initial $2000 given to evacuees by FEMA, she has not received any money from her home owners’ insurance policy, and she does not know when she will be able to return to work.”

Last fall, less than 15 percent of the Hurricane Katrina grant requests received by the National Science Foundation’s Human and Social Dynamics priority received funding. The Virginia Tech team received $108,860 for Small Grants for Exploratory Research related to Hurricane Katrina.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech is the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and engagement activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.