By Ellen Ann Frentress
Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Aging isn't for sissies, they say. In turn, the post-storm Coast isn't for the aging, not if the usual expectations for those senior years are what Katrina survivors have in mind.
The standard list of factors important to the elderly - familiar surroundings, loved ones nearby and financial stability - are exactly what a community recovering from disaster cannot provide to its oldest members. Not only have conditions generated stress and moves from the area, but deaths as well. A Columbia University scientist is tracking continuing Katrina-linked deaths in the elderly.
The most striking impact the storm has had on Coast seniors is how it's caused a lack of them. Thousands are gone. "They're not here," said Hancock County Coroner Norma Stiglett. "Most of the elderly people that were incapacitated have been shipped out of here."
Dr. William Safley, minister of Michael Memorial Baptist Church in Gulfport, estimates that a quarter of his church's elderly have moved away. Some churches have lost as much as 75 percent of their elderly, he reports. "Reconstruction costs are so high. With insurance and the construction environment so difficult - there are so many charlatans, and the waiting list for a reputable contractor is a year long - it's simpler for them to pack up and move," he said. "The emotional burden is too much for them to handle."
A Hancock County program reflects that post-storm change. Pre-Katrina, 425 took part in RSVP, a county senior-volunteer program. Five weeks after Katrina, eight participants were found. At this point, 129 have returned, said RSVP director JoAnn Lagasse.
Many Coast elderly have left because of a lack of housing, due to destroyed or damaged houses and rental space. Estimates are that 133,000 Mississippi homes were affected, as well as more than 10,000 apartments, according to a recent study by the Mississippi Center for Justice
Elderly homeowners are more likely to accept an insurance company's settlement offer rather than refute it, said Gulfport attorney Ben Galloway, who represents numerous homeowners suing their insurance companies. "Some of them have got it in them to fight, but others don't. They're not willing to go through the whole lawsuit fight, and the insurance companies know it. They get 10 cents on the dollar."
Not only has the elderly's housing disappeared, but nursing home beds as well. According to the Department of Health, 14 licensed nursing homes existed before the storm; 11 now. Available beds on the Coast have gone from 1,624 to 1,336.
More beds, however, won't be enough to bring back some transplanted patients. Rates are increasing. Some former patients, now out of the area, are unable to return due to the new higher rates, observers report.
No Coast nursing home returned calls about rate increases, but an informed observer reported, as an example, that a Biloxi facility has increased its daily charge from $131 to $146, a $450 monthly increase.
Nursing home owner Chris Cheek hopes to reopen his Bay St. Louis facility, Dunbar Village, by the summer of 2007. He confirms that rates will be higher due to post-Katrina insurance and construction costs. Dunbar Village, which had about 100 residents, evacuated its patients to Pine Lake Baptist Church in Brandon. While Cheek sees pent-up demand for nursing home beds, only about 20 former Dunbar Village patients want to return when it reopens. "It's not going to be a slam-dunk because so many folks have relocated," he said.
Assisted-living facility owner Prasant Desai is building a new facility inland near I-10 in Biloxi after his 60-bed Twin Oaks property, a block off the beach in Pass Christian, was destroyed. Twin Oaks patients were evacuated to Perkinston. Some have died since, and some are depressed by the stress, he said. He expects rates to be higher when his new Biloxi facility, Lemoyne Place, opens. Costs will increase not only from stronger construction - the walls will be solid concrete - but from the higher post-storm expense for insurance and salaries, Desai said.
Moves - some seniors experience repeated ones - were difficult on the elderly, particularly Alzheimer's patients, whose dementia increases away from familiar surrounding. "Once an elderly person gets situated somewhere else, a move is not necessarily good," Cheek said. Edmund Fahey Funeral Home office manager Jeanne Sampognaro says "so many of the elderly have the beginnings of Alzheimer's, and you take them out of their environment, and that's a big no." She heard of a recently-deceased woman who had been scheduled to go to Mobile to her fifth nursing home a few days before she died in Meridian.
That leads to the story told in newspaper obituaries. Sadly, when the aged do return to the area, it is often to be buried.
Families had to move their elders out of the storm area because beleaguered families couldn't manage their care while navigating recovery themselves. Mrs. Sampognaro, of the Bay St. Louis funeral home, has heard the story frequently: "Whenever a transported elderly person dies, a family will say, 'Mama just wanted to come home, and we couldn't.' "
Katrina's continuing death toll, including that of the elderly, is the focus of work by Columbia University scientist John Mutter. He is conducting a count of deaths attributable to Katrina, yet occurring after Aug. 29, 2005. He believes the death toll - 1,697 overall, 238 in Mississippi - will be far higher when deaths due to post-storm stress, construction accidents, suicide and other Katrina-linked causes are included in the total. Mutter, deputy director of Columbia's Earth Institute, has set up a web site (http://www.earth.columbia.edu/~mutterj/katrina_victims.php).
"It's pretty clear the elderly were the most vulnerable. It cuts across race. It's sort of the great equalizer," Mutter said. "In the first wave, many people are writing to us about elderly parents. They are talking about parents, not strong before the storm, who declined rapidly in the aftermath."
"There are many stories of elderly couples who seem to have died a lot sooner than people believe they should have,' he said.
One spouse dies, and, to the family's surprise, the other spouse soon follows, he said.
Mutter's findings concur with those of Coast coroners. "We've had a lot of heart-related, stress-related deaths, people realizing they would never get back what they had," said Vicki Broadus, Jackson County coroner. "I have seen some death certificates come through with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as the cause of death.
The doctors say that's really what happened. All their memories are washed away. Their hearts couldn't take it."
"The conditions they are living in have added to the stress," Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said. "There are a lot of people who are heartbroken and depressed."
At Gulf Coast Mental Health Center, psychologist Steve Barrilleaux frequently sees depressed storm survivors.
For the elderly, having children and grandchildren move away can be more devastating than home damage. He thought of one senior patient in particular. "She lost a tremendous amount of meaning in her life because her grandkids moved."
Mutter wants to publicize his project through the media and local organizations to encourage more Mississippians to give accounts of relatives whose deaths are Katrina-linked, elderly and others as well.
"It's important to have their stories known. People seem grateful we've made the site available. It gives them closure."