Seniors in disasters can be overlooked

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series about dealing with the trauma of disaster. The Tribune interviewed Rose Olmsted, coordinator of the Freeborn County Crisis Response Team, who has been trained under the National Organization of Victim Assistance model. The Crisis Response Team has been assisting people affected by the June 17 tornadoes.

As people get older, their capacity to meet their needs is compromised by aging.

Seniors have accumulated a lot of knowledge and a lifetime of experiences — which equates to wisdom — but these skills cannot keep the effects of the aging process from taking a decline on their other abilities, ones often required during a disaster, said Freeborn County Crisis Response Team Coordinator Rose Olmsted.

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When helping them recover from the trauma of disaster, it is important to not only remember their limitations but to also help them draw on their knowledge to bounce back and have a positive outlook on the future, she said.

During the June 17 tornadoes, Olmsted said there were many seniors who spent three or four hours in their basements.

“They were very afraid,” Olmsted said. “Some may have not been able to get to the basement. Some may have been concerned about pets, and some may not have heard the sirens.”

While some may not hear well, others may have a loss of vision or compromised health. Some seniors may be unable to get down their stairs or may live alone with no family in the community.

Olmsted said seniors may not manifest the same symptoms that other age groups do after a disaster. They sometimes have learned to mask emotions and try to have a mindset that they can take care of themselves.

“You often hear the elderly say others deserve more help than them,” she said.

Some, who are suffering from the early stages of dementia, may not want people to see how confused they are.

Olmsted said for the elderly a big concern is about starting over. She recalled during her crisis response training about a man who had lost everything, including his home and wife from a disaster, and he just wanted to die.

“When you look at seniors having lost everything they’ve accumulated, if they lost all the stuff from the past, that would be tough,” she said. “They may find the idea of reconstructing a life as overwhelming and impossible.”

And seniors who have experienced other traumatic losses may have to face the trauma from earlier experiences again.

When working with the elderly, Olmsted said, it is important to communicate clearly. Give them a chance to talk and be aware of their physical limitations.

Help them establish safety and security and find a secure place to rest and relax.

Seniors may need help calling and telling their family what has happened, she noted. They may also need help preparing for their future.

Olmsted said people helping seniors should not minimize losses. They should talk with them about their reasons for living, identify resources and provide companionship. They should also encourage a vision of life and help them identify the coping skills they’ve learned from previous situations and apply them again.

For additional information about dealing with the trauma of disaster, Olmsted can be reached at 507-402-2467.

The Freeborn County Crisis Response Team, within the Freeborn County Department of Human Services, is a group of volunteers who are trained to go out into the community to be supportive to groups of people who have been traumatized by disaster. Disaster could be natural or human-made, including tornadoes, floods, school shootings, sudden traumatic death or groups affected by crime.

The crisis response team is available to provide a listening ear to people traumatized by disaster, give presentations on trauma and offer group crisis interventions.

It is based on the model established by the National Organization of Victim Assistance. There are about 50 trained volunteers.

The Freeborn County Crisis Response Team can also be reached at 507-444-1030.