After major disasters, older people who live alone have historically been among the most vulnerable. And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, they may be the most in need of help.
"Those older adults who are hidden, lost, unknown, not connected in any way face a particular risk" in natural disasters, says Fredda Vladeck, director of a program at New York's United Hospital Fund that focuses on seniors and their communities.
The lessons of recent history — from New Orleans to Chicago to Paris — have underscored this risk. One federal study found that during the Paris heat wave of 2003, those most likely to die were women 75 and over who lived alone.
"What we have learned from both the heat wave in Chicago and from Hurricane Katrina is that while everyone was vulnerable at some level, older people who lived alone were especially at risk," the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of a book on the Chicago heat wave of 1995, told BuzzFeed Shift.
"There's already a sense this week that the city is back to work and that the storm has passed," he said, "but we just don't know whats happening with older people who live downtown" or in other areas with severe flooding.
They may well be struggling — Vladeck says some seniors in the Fulton Houses, a city housing development in Chelsea, were going without the home care they needed after the storm hit. But other tenants of the development have stepped up, going door-to-door to make sure their older neighbors have the food and medical care they need.
That's something able-bodied people anywhere can do for their neighbors after a disaster like this one, says Vladeck: "it behooves neighbors to adopt a senior who is alone, and just as you provision for yourself, make sure they have food." And make sure they have a working flashlight with batteries, any medication they need, and water, since seniors can be especially vulnerable to dehydration. Klinenberg also suggests trying to get them a battery-powered radio and "some way of communicating, even if that means a bullhorn."
If neighbors need help caring for seniors in their area, they can contact city services (in New York, Vladeck says the first step is to call 311, which can dispatch callers to the city's Department for the Aging). Another option is to contact a local senior center. But, says Vladeck, "where you've got neighbors who are mobile, there's much they can do on their own."
In the long run, Klinenberg says city governments could help by keeping lists of older people who live alone and may be especially vulnerable, so they know where they are before a disaster. And neighbors, too, could get to know single seniors in their area so they'll be aware of who to check on when a storm like Sandy comes. "We have good evidence to believe that unfortunately these conditions will return," Klinenberg says, "and we need to rethink what it means to do homeland security" — meaning protecting citizens of all ages from the weather as well as terrorism. "I hope that given all the terrible things that have happened this last week," he adds, "one upshot is we learn that lesson and begin to change."