Elderly resilience following Canterbury quakes

1 November 2012

How the elderly fared in the Christchurch quakes was the focus for several presentations at the recent Baby Boomers & Beyond symposium held in the shaky city. FIONA CASSIE reports on a presentations by PhD student Michael Annear:

A tale of two cities and two quakes

The quakes that rocked Christchurch saw a PhD research project into active ageing in the city ‘jolted’ into focusing on post-disaster resilience and coping in older people.

University of Otago PhD student Michael Annear’s research found many examples of both remarkable resilience and increased vulnerability as the September 2010 quake was surpassed by the 22 February 2011 quake and its aftermath.

Annear had just finished phase one of his active ageing research when the 7.1 quake hit on 4 September. So his phase two survey of 355 older adults in the city evolved to take in the quake and its ongoing aftershocks.

Just days before 22 February 2011, he started phase three of his study – sending out 14-day activity diaries to the research participants spread across the city. So yet again, his research study was re-configured to take in the ongoing aftermath of that devastating quake.

A close examination of the literature on how older adults cope in adverse events indicated to Annear that while older adults may be more physically vulnerable, many also show mental resilience. The theories for why this is so range from the inoculation theory (experiencing previous disasters prepares older adults for future hardship), the maturation theory (emotional maturity gained over a lifetime prepares them for adversity), and the burden theory (not facing the same work, child care, or financial responsibilities mean they face less disruption than younger adults following a disaster).

Survey results after the September quake showed that his sample group – living in 12 Christchurch communities selected before the quakes hit – were remarkably resilient. Less than half reported minor impacts from the September quake and less than a third reported psychological issues like anxiety and insomnia.

Some anxious participants surveyed after the September quake ended up being prescient as they expressed concerns that the ongoing aftershocks were leading to another ‘big one’.

When 22 February hit, Annear found that even many of the resilient found themselves vulnerable as the level of disruption – due to damage to their homes, the city, and infrastructure – stepped beyond a threshold they could cope with.

The level of disruption to their environments doubled after the February quake over what was reported post-September, and quadrupled for participants in the hardest hit communities included in the study: Redcliffs, Ferrymead, and New Brighton. Disruption to participating in activities also increased for everybody but most severely for those in Redcliffs and

New Brighton, which led him to describe the study’s findings as a “tale of two earthquakes and of two cities”.

Diary reports post-February show emerging mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, lethargy, insomnia, feelings of grief and anger, and resorting to negative behaviours like alcohol abuse and overeating.

Annear says the diaries also showed a lot of older people coping very well – keeping themselves busy by starting their own household repairs, baking muffins for soldiers on duty, digging up liquefaction, and attending outdoor exercise classes after their gym was forced to close.

His study provided the rare chance to monitor vulnerable older adults’ responses to the disruption of two successive earthquake disasters and their resilience levels in the wake of the first disaster, and then again when the threshold of resilience was breached by the second more devastating disaster, with its accumulated impact on participants’ immediate and wider environment. The less resilient experienced an overall reduction in their activities, while the more flexible and resilient adapted or continued their activities in alternative and undamaged locations.

Participant focus groups six months on from the February quakes came up with ideas to help older people recover, including accessible transport in the worst hit suburbs, age-friendly designs for the city rebuild, supporting churches and non-profit groups to find new premises, and good emergency information and preparedness.

“Prior to the February 22nd earthquake, I had a very active life with bowls, visiting, socialising, telephone calls .. .Since the earthquake, my activities have been somewhat curtailed due to road and traffic problems, friends who have moved temporarily or permanently, and various organisations not operating because of problems arising from the earthquake,” reported one 90-year-old in her diary.

Apart from sleepless nights, chaotic house, phone calls, arthritis, I have kept my assignments: assessing story telling, adjudicating senior speech and drama, attending a conference, preparing and delivering a seminar and an 85th birthday,” one central city 79-year-old reported to Annear post-September.