Contrary to conventional thinking, many seniors appear better able to cope with a natural disaster's aftermath than younger people, in large part due to coping techniques they developed during previous disasters, according to a survey of Baton Rouge, La.-area residents after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Psychologist Katie E. Cherry, PhD, a professor of aging studies at Louisiana State University, presented the findings at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.

The hurricanes did not directly hit Baton Rouge, but the city still experienced significant effects: Its population practically doubled afterward, with many residents housing storm-evacuated family and friends.

To gauge the mental health effects on older adults, Cherry and her research team tapped participants in the ongoing Louisiana Health Aging Study. Participants in three age groups-45-64 years, 65-89 years and 90 years and older-answered questionnaires about the degree that Katrina, Rita and previous storms affected them. Participants also described their storm-related coping and filled out psychological and self-perceived health batteries. The researchers assessed 66 participants immediately after the storms hit and 56 participants 6 months later.

Preliminary findings indicate the older groups, especially the oldest-old, scored highest on self-perceived health and quality-of-life. In addition, while many reported storm-related sadness and sympathy for others-and feeling good about helping others-more than 40 percent reported no mental impact of the storm. A quarter had "what if?" thoughts, and just over 20 percent felt lucky to be so little affected.

"The respondents' self-reported health has basically not been affected by the storms," said Cherry. "These are happy, well-adjusted people."

Why the relatively better mental state among older adults? Cherry suggested several possible reasons:

  • They've experienced and resolved previous stressful events.

  • They likely have fewer current stressful experiences-less life change and less likelihood of caring for children or parents or both-than their younger counterparts.

  • Coping mechanisms derived from their past stress helps inoculate them against future stress.

In fact, said Cherry, 90 percent of participants had lived through previous storms; many of them described seeing and experiencing severe damage. "These are well seasoned copers," she said.

--B. Murray Law