Katrina's Impact on Elderly Still Resonates

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the elderly suffered in disproportionate numbers. Six months later, there's evidence seniors are suffering health declines in greater numbers than younger storm victims.

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In New Orleans, this day also marks a day a return to the work for of recovery. Six months after the storm, some of the people struggling the most are the elderly.

NPR's Alix Spiegel reports.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Lambeth House is a retirement home that caters to New Orleans' well-to-do. It has an expansive library, an elegant dining room, valet parking. And when 86- year-old retiree evacuee Helen Shaw finally returned there after months of displacement, of sleeping on couches in strange houses, of sharing space at a Medicaid facility upstate, she was palpably relieved. The ordeal of Katrina was over.

Ms. HELEN SHAW: When we got to the gate and saw that welcome sign, it was the most wonderful thing in the world. We were home. Fantastic.

SPIEGEL: Shaw quickly settled in: resumed her bride games, returned to church. All was as it had been, with one notable exception. Invariably, in the five months since Katrina, whenever Helen Shaw picks up her local newspaper, she finds herself reading an obituary of one or more of her friends.

Ms. SHAW: Oh, I guess I could say that there've been about 25. And it's disturbing.

SPIEGEL: You see, Shaw feels certain that these deaths are a belated product of Katrina. She says her elderly friends feel overwhelmed by new environments, reduced circumstances, and the difficulty of building a new life. She points out that before Katrina, her attendance at funerals was substantially lighter.

Ms. LOUISE EWIN(ph): Maybe two, two a month. So, to have five or six a month. Elsie Flowers(ph), Elizabeth Freidrichs(ph), Sarah Abair(ph), Nelly Ivy(ph), who was a grammar school friend of mine, Nelly Ivy Gillis. Martha Ann Samuels(ph), Charlotte Riley(ph), Katherine Gore(ph)...

SPIEGEL: This is Louise Ewin, another lifelong resident of New Orleans. Like Helen Shaw, in the weeks and months following Katrina, Ewin noticed an abrupt uptake in the number of her friends who were passing away. And so, she decided to start a list. Lying on the desk in her living room is a handwritten paper filled with the names of all her dead friends. It stretches over two pages.

Ms. EWIN: Dr. Burton White, Altholea Bunza(ph), Roy Marcy(ph), Irene Ernest(ph), Jim Kappa(ph), Mary Elizabeth Pough(ph), Virginia O'Conner(ph), Ducky Reese(ph), Tateen Pathouse(ph), and Hatte Betty Prince(ph), who was in my class at Newcombe.

SPIEGEL: After finishing her recitation of names, Louise returns to the first page and starts to count.

Ms. EWIN: Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. 17 double is 34, 35, 6, 37, 38.

SPIEGEL: Thirty-eight people in five months. She looks down at the page for a moment, searching, and then makes a correction.

Ms. EWIN: One other person I didn't say, my brother Walter Manelson(ph) died. I don't have him on this list. He died right in late November.

SPIEGEL: Thirty-nine; an average of two friends a week. She says it was never this way before.

Ms. EWIN: Oh, not, not nearly this many. I would say one every other week, maybe.

SPIEGEL: Although accurate records are extremely to come by, it appears that in the wake of Katrina, the elderly in New Orleans are dying in higher numbers than usual.

Ken Sakauye is a psychiatrist at Louisiana State University. He coordinates care for a number of New Orleans institutions that serve the elderly, and he says that the stress of displacement is undermining the immune systems of older citizens.

Doctor KEN SAKAUYE (Psychiatry, Louisiana State University): You know, in geriatrics in general, there's always been this notion of relocation trauma, where if an older person is forced to go anyplace against their will, it markedly increases the likelihood that their illnesses will get worse, or they'll die. And that seems to be very true over here.

SPIEGEL: The anxiety of negotiating new surroundings and changed routines is taking a toll on the elderly of New Orleans, Sakauye says. Many are just too frail to weather this kind of stress.

And even when the stress doesn't undermine the immune system enough to result in death, it usually affects cognition levels. In fact, according to Sakauye, reduced cognitive functioning is probably the biggest legacy of Katrina among the elderly.

Dr. SAKAUYE: I think that the biggest thing that you hear about are the people who've regressed. If they had cognitive impairment to begin with, what is quantum deterioration after the storm. They've just gone backwards.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes?

Unidentified Woman #2: Those little white things you talk about aren't in there.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay. They'll give you one.

SPIEGEL: It's easy to find evidence of cognitive decline among the elderly at the Adult Day Center associated with the East Jefferson Hospital.

The Center usually provides care to a wide range of clients, from those with severe dementia, to older singles, who come simply for social stimulation. Normally, because of this cognitive spread, clients at the center need to be broken into two different groups. There's a class for people who are still mentally intact, and a class for people with lower cognitive levels.

But according to Denise Addison, a nurse who's worked at the facility for eight years, since the storm, there's no longer a need for separation.

Ms. DENSE ADDISON (Nurse, Adult Day Center, New Orleans): Now we can put these two classes together, and you couldn't tell the difference. They're all kind of on the same level. Sixty to seventy percent of our clients has taken a big hit.

SPEIGEL: Most, Addison says, are now totally disoriented. She says she sees this change most clearly in a woman at the Center who she's known for several years.

Ms. ADDISON: One particular client that was really high functioning, could still basically take care of herself, was real vain about her looks and her makeup and everything, and she was here just for social stimulation. Now, she is an almost what we call a total care. Now when she try to go to the bathroom, she don't know what that is. You know, when she starts to eliminate, she, it really increase her anxiety level, because she has no clue that she is doing a normal body function.

SPEIGEL: Addison considers it unlikely that her clients will regain their former level of cognitive functions. She says once it's gone, it's gone.

The only silver lining Addison offers is that many are now so disoriented that they're not burdened with the knowledge that the lives they knew are gone. She says she's thankful for that.

But a fog of unknowing is not available to everyone. Across town, at Lambeth House, Margaret Dickey now lives alone. Five months ago, a week after Katrina had come and gone, her husband had a stroke and died. She carries a framed picture of him wrapped in a brown lunch bag to the interview, because, she says, she's afraid people will not understand how good-looking he was.

With the picture on her lap, she explains that she tries to keep positive, and is glad, at least, to finally be back at Lambeth House. Here, she says, people understand her loss.

Ms. MARGARET DICKEY: I was telling a friend of mine, I said, the amazing thing to me is, that the five months since he died have been longer than the 58 years we were married. It's, two do become one.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

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