Helping seniors in times of trauma

As Hurricane Ivan pummels the U.S. Gulf Coast, Saint Louis University continues to study what we need to do to ensure Grandma’s safety in case of a disaster.

“Older people are much more likely to suffer in a disaster. Many are shut-ins and have no way to get help. In addition, older people worry about disasters more than younger people,” says John Morley, M.D., director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University. “It’s important that we have the systems in place to reassure them.”

While we’ve examined how to communicate and support other groups that are vulnerable to the effects of a terror attack or disaster, we must not ignore the special needs of our elderly, adds Nina Tumosa, Ph.D., professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“We’ve done research on first responders and on children. But the most vulnerable population in case of disaster is the frail elderly. While every child has a responsible adult to take care of them, most frail elderly are their own most responsible adults.”

Some older adults live alone and are more dependent on services, such as meals or home health care, brought in from the outside. A disaster can play havoc with whether service providers can continue to offer the assistance many seniors depend upon.

“Some elderly are too frail to get out of a dangerous situation by themselves. Compounding the problem, sometimes they live with another frail elder. We need to know how to get them a safety net,” says Tumosa, who also is assistant director for education at Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) at St. Louis Veterans Medical Center.

Saint Louis University and the GRECC at St. Louis Veterans Medical Center have received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create a teaching tool that reminds health care providers of the special attention they need to give frail elders in case of a disaster.

“The idea is to get everyone thinking and make sure our frail elders continue to receive the special help they need,” Tumosa says.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first M.D. degree west of the Mississippi River. Saint Louis University School of Medicine is a pioneer in geriatric medicine, organ transplantation, chronic disease prevention, cardiovascular disease, neurosciences and vaccine research, among others. The School of Medicine trains physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health services on a local, national and international level. The division of geriatric medicine is ranked among the top 10 by U.S. News & World Reports.

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