Professor studies aging families in Katrina aftermath
August 23, 2006
Aging families affected by Hurricane Katrina have experienced both physical and emotional problems in the aftermath of the disaster, and many yearn to “go back home,” according to preliminary findings from a team of researchers.
Karen Roberto, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Gerontology, has teamed with Tammy Henderson, formerly of Virginia Tech and the newly appointed director of the Institute for Gerontology at Oklahoma State University, and with Yoshinori Kamo, a sociology professor from Louisiana State University, to discern who and what is helping these seniors regain some stability and rebuild their lives
The research team conducted over 100 interviews with elders over a six-month period. During interviews done in February and March, the older adults consistently talked about going back to the life they knew in New Orleans.
As one elderly woman explained, “One way or the other I am going back to New Orleans. I like New Orleans and here [Baton Rouge] it's okay, but the places is so far apart; you have to go miles to take care of your business. In New Orleans all you do is step outside and catch the bus you know and go where you are going and take care of your business. Then you step outside, catch a bus and come on back home.”
Roberto said that elders interviewed later in the year appeared much more resigned, or perhaps realistic in assessing their living situation. They have visited their gutted homes and describe their neighborhoods as “desolate and depressing.” Some were exploring their housing options in New Orleans, the Baton Rouge area, and elsewhere while others noted that they are “in limbo” and do not know for sure what they will do.
The researchers have found that the elderly employ a variety of strategies to deal with the uncertainty of their situation. Many rely on religion to cope with their situation, while others find solace through actively planning their futures; others move forward by merely accepting their fate.
Older adults also note that they have experienced more physical conditions, such as anxiety, coughing and sleeplessness, since Katrina. Emotionally, they acknowledge more fear and depression.
One older woman told the interviewer, “Katrina brought another dimension to our lives. It brought a dimension that was overwhelming and [it is] making it unable to focus clearly. This is continuing saga . . .I am looking forward to getting some of it over, getting past some of it and putting some of it behind me, but that's the challenge every time, everyday.
While these elderly survivors speak kindly of the support their family received from distant kin and strangers; some note difficulties in obtaining and accepting governmental assistance. Many of the elders are living in temporary trailer communities established in Baton Rouge by FEMA and are still waiting for their house insurance payments so that they can proceed with either rebuilding or finding a new place to live.
After the storm, Baton Rouge residents welcomed evacuees into their homes and community, providing food, shelter, fellowship, and other life necessities. The sheer size of the displaced population and differences in culture and general way of life, however, also have presented challenges for Baton Rouge residents as they too are adapting to this life-changing situation. Although not part of the official study sample, the research team has also observed the stress and strain placed on members of the formal community service network, many of whom are dealing personally with the aftermath of Katrina and have had very little disaster training.
Funded by a grant from the NSF, 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.
The team is identifying: (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.
Last fall, less than 15 percent of the Hurricane Katrina grant requests received by NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics priority received funding. The VT team received $108,860 for Small Grants for Exploratory Research related to Hurricane Katrina.