To close out the month of May and our discussion about climate change and aging, we welcome guest blogger Sarah Torgeson, a doctoral student in American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sarah collects oral histories from older adults experiencing climate change, and as you will note below, has a very personal connection to this topic. Welcome, Sarah, to wAGING change!
When my grandfather Bill Bourgeois was 71 years old, Hurricane Katrina (2005) flooded his house in Waveland, MS, with more than five feet of water. As a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast, he had lived through other strong storms, including the Hurricane of 1947 and category 5 Hurricane Camille (1969). Unlike those earlier experiences, Bill evacuated ahead of Hurricane Katrina. He had the means to do so—transportation, family support, financial resources—and was grateful for his decision when he returned to find his home severely damaged. Just across the street, his 78-year-old sister and her family survived the floodwaters only by crowding into a boat secured to a porch beam. Committed to staying on the Mississippi Gulf Coast despite decades of loss and recovery, Bill rebuilt his house almost entirely on his own. In a recent oral history interview, I asked my grandfather, now 87, what it was like to rebuild his house as an older adult. “Well,” he said, chuckling, “I could do a lot more than I can do now.” As both his grandchild and a researcher interested in older adult vulnerability to hurricanes and climate change, I worry about this. What will he do if the wind and floodwaters return in his lifetime? What if he has to start over again? What does it mean for older adults to live and age in environmental precarity?
Scholars and community-members alike have fretted about this precarity for some time, and for good reason. In 1960, gerontologist H. J. Friedsam critiqued disaster studies scholars for neglecting to attend to how disasters differentially affected populations along lines of race, gender, and age. Using Hurricane Audrey’s impact on Louisiana in 1957 as a case study, Friedsam argued that there was significant evidence that “the young and the old, particularly the latter, become casualties with far greater frequency than their numbers in impact populations would lead one to expect.” Data from more recent hurricanes indicates the continued relevance of Friedsam’s observation. Half of Hurricane Katrina’s victims were 75 and older, while nearly half of Hurricane Sandy (2012) victims were 65 and older (U.S. EPA, 2).
In the disaster narratives that circulate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, community members also emphasize the problem of older adult disaster vulnerability by relating stories of local elders’ deaths. Additionally, they often illustrate older adult vulnerability in terms of a decreased ability to prepare for and recover from storms, usually due to disability and health conditions, loss of social support systems, and diminished resources. For example, in post-Katrina oral histories, it is not unusual for hurricane survivors to recount assisting elderly neighbors before, during, or after the storm “because they didn’t have anywhere else to go (Brister, 6).” Volunteers and younger community members alike repeatedly lament the dire situations of elders who lost a lifetime of accumulated resources with little time, energy, or support remaining to invest in recovery.
Even as older adults feature prominently and symbolically in Mississippi Gulf Coast disaster narratives, however, I have found that their own voices are underrepresented. Indeed, it is unusual to hear the types of stories described in the previous paragraph from the perspective of older adult disaster survivors. Natural hazards scholar Nnenia Cambpell has identified the same problem in scholarly work on older adult disaster vulnerability. As the body of research currently stands, older adults tend to be represented as “passive victims” and are only rarely depicted as “relevant agents in their own stories (83).” Like Campbell, I argue that in order to gain a more accurate understanding of older adults disaster vulnerability, we—scholars and members of communities—must stop thinking of older adults as passive subjects and instead consult them as experts of their own lived experiences. We must seek out older adults’ stories.
Certainly, there are distinct risks and challenges for older adults living in hurricane prone areas. We should be concerned by the disproportionate mortality rates for older adults in disaster situations, especially as climate change threatens to impact the severity of weather events like hurricanes. We should also be worried about the widespread challenges that people of all ages face in preparing for and recovering from disasters. As my grandfather’s story suggests, though, how older adults think about and experience disaster is complex. They are not passive or inevitable victims. Older adults are, just like their younger friends, family, and neighbors, community stakeholders contending with an uncertain future. If we are to truly understand and address the problem of environmental disaster in the United States, we must commit to foregrounding the voices and perspectives of those groups we understand to be most vulnerable, including older adults. This is the work I propose to do through my dissertation research. Using ethnographic methods and oral history, I seek to work with diverse older adults on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As collaborators and co-researchers, we will explore the ways older adults show up in existing narratives and conversations about disaster, environmental change, and vulnerability. Most importantly, we will explore how we—scholars, experts, and communities—might better center older adult voices.
©2021 Sarah Torgeson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Bourgeois, William J. “Bill” and Myrna Ladner. Oral history with William J. “Bill” Bourgeois and Myrna Ladner Bourgeois conducted by Sarah Torgeson, January 8, 2021.
Brister, Thomas Ed. Oral history with Thomas Ed Brister conducted by Johanna Stork and Chrystal Bowen-Swan, 21 February 2007, Mississippi Oral History Project at the University of Southern Mississippi, https://digitalcollections.usm.edu/uncategorized/digitalFile_5a4b3a0b-588a-4e4d-87d9-6bc54b86cd8d/.
Campbell, Nnenia. “Disaster Recovery Among Older Adults: Exploring the Intersection of Vulnerability and Resilience.” Emerging Voices in Natural Hazards Research, edited by Fernando I. Rivera, Elsevier Science and Technology, 2019, pp. 83-119.
Friedsam, H.J. “Older Persons as Disaster Casualties.” Journal of Health and Human Behavior, vol. 1, no. 4, 1960, pp. 269-73.
United States, Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change and the Health of Older Adults, May 2016, https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPURL.cgi?Dockey=P100OW3X.txt