Generally speaking if the question “Who is society’s most vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster?” is put to a group of individuals, whether in a social or academic setting, most initial guesses will lean towards, the elderly, the sick, the very young, or women. Whilst these are the most obvious collection of guesses and not entirely wrong, the demographic that often surprises people because they turn out to be anything but vulnerable is, the elderly.
In general, and predominately in western societies, the elderly have lived through hardships that generations X and Y only read about or see in movies. Years of substantive living throughout world wars, various recessions and possibly even the great depression as well as utilities that were not always as reliable as they are today. Electricity shortages, no water filtration and haphazard telephone connections were commonplace and not the everyday convenience that most of us take for granted nowadays. This life-experience is the foundation of elderly community members that may be physically frail and susceptible to the impact of a disaster, but their experience and inner strength will shine through in the days and weeks after a crisis.
Technology has impacted everyday life at a phenomenal pace and with bewildering results. Few in society have complete mastery over all gadgets and appliances we surround ourselves with. I too, have to help my parents program the TiVo to record when they want or migrate their telephone numbers to the latest cell phone just purchased. However, I regularly seek out someone younger than me to explain Twitter or help code a website. It’s all relative.
When disaster strikes, whether that be in the magnitude of the Japanese Tsunami or the local impact of a tornado, skills from an era without microwaves, cell phones, and fully automated clothes washers and dryers come to the fore. Our retirees in society will generally revert back to systems they used or remembered from their youth to get by until the resumption of public utilities. Quite often without fuss or delay, the elderly are found re-establishing their general living abilities, whether that’s collecting wood for fire, digging out that old gas camping stove for cooking or teaching their young neighbour how to use a hand held non electric can opener.
Many anecdotal stories have resulted from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 in which elderly survivors helped young mothers care for children and babies, teaching them to cook using open fires, warming a baby’s milk without the use of a microwave and how to make and use a nappy (diaper) that isn’t disposable.
Next time you see an elderly person struggling to buy a ticket at the train station or struggling to interpret the self serve checkout system at the supermarket; offer to help them, because whether you think you’ll need it or not, if disaster strikes your locale, it might just be that retired couple next door you ask for assistance.