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Interview: Older Adults Show Resilience in Flood Disaster


Robyn Tuohy

Robyn Tuohy

With extreme weather events on the rise around the world, researchers are turning their attention to the needs of older people in disaster situations.

New research offers a glimpse into the lives of flood victims 14 months after flooding caused major damage to Kaitaia, a town in the far north region of New Zealand in 2007. Robyn Tuohy and Christine Stephens from Massey University in New Zealand found that older adults used their past experiences or biographical capital and their sense of personal identity to maintain resilience in the crisis.

Tuohy, the lead investigator, is a doctoral student at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research/ School of Psychology at Massey University.

The research appeared online in the Journal of Aging Studies (July 19, 2011).

AHB reached Robyn Tuohy in Wellington, New Zealand.

Ruth Dempsey: The adults in the study were evacuated from their homes because of rising floodwaters in the small North Island township of Kaitaia. Can you describe them for me?

Robyn Tuohy: There were nine participants in all: four males and five females. Five of them lived independently in the community. Actually, they all lived in council owned seniors flats on a single street. They ranged in age from late 60s to late 70s. The other four participants were residents of a rest home. These were aged from mid-70s to late 80s.

RD: "Brenda", who lived in one of the council flats, seemed unaware of the danger until she noticed flashing lights and saw the firemen . . .

RT: There was no advance warning, which may have been one reason.

RD: What did she do?

RT: Brenda was an independent woman, but the emergency evacuation in the dark frightened her.

After she received the fireman’s warning to evacuate, she went into her flat intending to organize things. But she did not gather items together and shift important items to a higher level, as she had done in a previous flood.

She wanted to get out of her flat immediately because she did not know how close the levee was to overflowing. All she took with her was a pair of track pants and her medication. She just got in her car and drove away.

During the interview, Brenda emphasized adapting to life after the flood: "Like as I say, people thought that I would be shattered [referring to the flood] you know, and I think because of the life I’ve led I wasn’t, and because I had insurance . . ."

RD: "Kaye", another tenant, was coping with the death of her daughter when the disaster hit . . .

RT: That’s right. Kaye came to Kaitaia two years before the flood. She was in poor health and her daughter offered to look after her, but five months later her daughter died.

RD: How did you find her a year later?

RT: The flood hit Kaye hard. She was shocked that she had lost so many possessions, including her bed and clothing.

Worst of all, she lost her treasured wool and pattern collection, which was a huge part of her life.

Kaye talked about how people helped one another after the flood. "And a lot of people I didn’t know have now become my friends and some of them are here [in the nearby flats], most of us in here are flood victims, and we have all got to know each other."

In fact, when the residents returned to their refurbished flats, they instituted monthly dinner outings and special birthday events.

RD: "Bill" was able to provide assistance to emergency personnel . . .

RT: Bill was the youngest person in the rental community, and provided everyday practical assistance such as changing light bulbs for his older neighbours. He was aware of which residents were the most vulnerable in the flood and, initially, he assisted emergency personnel to access their flats.

RD: Bill lost his car and his furniture. He refused to allow the authorities to remove the two armchairs that had belonged to his mother . . .

RT: Yes, Bill was able to disinfect and hose down the two chairs and hide them at a friend’s place.

He lost possessions going back more than 50 years, including all the photographs from his years in the navy.

Still, Bill said the turmoil did not affect him as much as it did some of the others: "I was in the navy for a very long time, so the stress it affected the others in the flats, but it didn’t me, ‘cos stress was part and parcel of the job."

RD: What about the people in the rest home?

RT: All the residents were evacuated. Frail residents spent the night at the local hospital. Those who were more mobile were evacuated to the local school.

The staff cared for residents until they returned to the home the following day. As it turns out, the rest home escaped the floodwaters.

RD: You interviewed several of the people from the home, including "Tom". What do you know about him?

RT: Tom had been widowed for 20 years. Over time, he became lonely in the community and decided to move to a rest home. His children worried the home was not the place for him because he was outward-looking and interested in world events. But he stuck to his decision and has been happy ever since.

During the emergency, Tom was evacuated to the hospital. He was not worried by the sudden nighttime evacuation, rather he felt safe during the emergency. He was confident in the decisions being made.

RD: Surprisingly perhaps, the flood opened up a wider world for Tom . . .

RT: That’s right. The flood had a big impact on Tom because it allowed him to feel part of an important community event that extended beyond the rest home.

"Well I have been through a lot of experiences in my life and that [the flood] is one of them that I will never forget, because I was in the war and I saw things there, and when I compare them, this flood stands out."

He added, "I’ve been very lucky in my life and saw a lot of my mates killed and all that, and this is something I will always think about: how lucky I was, and here I am today."

RD: So what did you learn about older people in disaster situations?

RT: I was struck by their resilience. The findings suggest that a lifetime of experience provides resources for psychological resilience rather than vulnerability.

I also gained valuable insights into how older adults use their past experiences and their sense of personal identity to deal with challenge and change.

Take Brenda, for example. She saw herself as a self-sufficient woman. She had been through a previous flood. True, she didn’t feel she had handled the recent flood as well as the earlier one, but she evacuated herself and she had insurance. So, as she explained, she was not "shattered" by the event.

Similarly, Tom used his wartime experiences and his identity as an engaged older adult to make sense of the flood and to demonstrate interest in a world beyond the home.

The study also highlights the need for practical and social support in disaster situations.

The rest home residents’ stories reflected the importance of being protected and cared for during the evacuation

All the community-dwelling older adults received assistance to find temporary accommodation. They also received financial welfare assistance to replace household items if they did not have insurance

The findings also point to the need for ongoing support during the recovery phase. Kaye is a case in point. At the time of the interview, she was dealing with a current concern related to the flood – an expensive electricity account that was incorrect. She was very grateful for the advocacy support she received to deal with the problem.