When I was a child, I remember my mother waking all of us children in our modest house north of New Orleans to alert us about a severe storm. The crashing thunder and the lighting flashing at the windows had already made sleep virtually impossible. My mother insisted that we get dressed so that if we were blown away, we would be fully clothed.
Five decades later, my mother was blown away by Hurricane Katrina. She survived the 160 mph winds, but the storm shook her foundations, as it did with the houses near her home in Bogalusa. Her health, already precarious, deteriorated steadily over this past year. She was hospitalized earlier this summer, and is still unable to come home.
I'm not alone in struggling with seniors' reactions to Hurricane Katrina. One friend's elderly mother dwindled from a size 14 to a size 8 over the last year. Seventy-six-year-old Rita Collins, according to an August 16 Knight Ridder article, died of a stroke in May after being moved twice in the aftermath of the storm. Her daughter Michelle said, "We were trying to get her back to Buras, but we never made it. It was the stress, not knowing where she was at. It killed her."
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has not only affected seniors, of course. Overall, suicide rates in New Orleans have almost tripled, and some professionals say that half a million people in the Katrina-affected area need mental health care. An estimated 80 percent of local psychiatrists have left the area, and there's a shortage of psychiatric hospital beds. "We really have a mental health crisis, and we've had it for months," said Tulane psychiatrist Dr. Janet Johnson.
But the new mental health services now being funded do not focus on the particular needs of seniors. One icon for the storm is Milvirtha Hendricks, the frail 85-year-old lady wrapped in the star-spangled coverlet, who appears in Spike Lee's new movie and innumerable magazine reports. Yet more attention has been paid to the youngest survivors of the storm than to the oldest.
Itıs much easier for young and middle-aged adults to pick up and start a new life. The toll on the elderly has been tremendous, with their health weakened by anxiety, insomnia, and depression. The loss of homes, churches, neighborhoods and family treasures is more than the frail elderly can bear.
And many African American seniors, especially those with low incomes, already had more risk factors than their white counterparts. In A Different Shade of Gray: Midlife and Beyond in the Inner City, Katherine S. Newman spotlights the challenges that working-class minorities face sooner and more severely than anyone else. The vast majority of African Americans now in their seventies spent their formative years in deep poverty, with little access to education. They worked very hard with little reward. Diabetes, cancer and heart disease hit them at younger ages than whites. Some lost children to dangerous street life, leaving them with too little family to help them and sometimes with grandchildren to support.
Seniors of color are less likely to own homes or have savings to cushion their old age. In The Color of Wealth, Meizhu Lui and her co-authors describe how asset ownership is influenced by public policies affecting previous generations. White Americans built assets with the help of programs such as the Homestead Act and the GI Bill, which were inaccessible to most minorities. Many of today's white families have been able to pass down some assets, and even modest assets bring security. In black families, by contrast, the working generation more commonly needs to support the elders financially. Black homeowners are more likely to lose their homes to debt, foreclosure and bankruptcy, often after long illnesses not covered by health insurance.
My motherıs generation of African Americans lived through a time of enormous political and economic change. They grew up under Jim Crow and broke its barriers for us, but couldn't take full advantage of the new opportunities available for younger African Americans. Many of them are people of deep faith. They were our steady rocks during our childhood storms. Now they need us to steady them. One year later, we owe it to the eldest Katrina survivors to surround them with all the love, services and support they need.
Emma Dixon of Mandeville, Louisiana is an economics educator with United for a Fair Economy and co-author of Stalling the Dream: Cars, Race and Hurricane Evacuation. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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