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With Age Comes Resilience, Storm's Aftermath Proves

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

WINSBORO, La. -- As captured by searing images on television, Hurricane Katrina seemed to single out the elderly for particular punishment -- people such as 86-year-old Pearline Chambers.

She spent two days alone in her one-story house in the submerged Ninth Ward of New Orleans, with hurricane floodwater up to her neck. She lost her false teeth, her wig and her cats.

"I just waded around and waded around, trying to get up in my attic," said Chambers, a widow. "I kept climbing and slipping and falling in that water."

After she was rescued -- two men floating by on a board heard her screams -- she spent two more semiconscious days in the city, struggling to walk, severely dehydrated and hungry. As she recalled, "I didn't know where I was. I laid somewhere, I'm not sure where, and people walked around me."

Two weeks after the storm, though, Chambers feels fine. Living now with her sister's family in this small town in northern Louisiana, she said she has nobody but "my stubborn self" to blame for ignoring hurricane warnings and refusing to flee New Orleans in her blue Chevrolet Corsica.

Her rapid recovery and emotional balance do not surprise experts who study the elderly. A large and growing body of research shows that healthy elderly people are often able to bounce back from extraordinary adversity more quickly than younger people.

"Study after study has shown that for older people, negative emotions have less of an effect than with young people -- and for the elderly those effects dissipate faster," said Gene D. Cohen, a geriatric psychiatrist at George Washington University who for 20 years directed research on aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Research on the resilience of the elderly squares with the impressions of half a dozen psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers who in the past two weeks have treated several hundred elderly people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. They agreed that when elderly evacuees were given water, food, clothes and a secure place to sleep, they tended to be less anxious and had higher morale than younger adults. This was especially true, they said, if elderly people were reunited with family.

"You don't live to 80 without being tough," said Robert E. Reichlin, a clinical psychologist and specialist on early onset Alzheimer's disease at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He treated elderly evacuees at the Astrodome. "Older adults do bounce back well because they have seen a lot and they have lived through a lot. Psychologically, they can take a lot more in stride than young people."

There is, however, an important medical caveat to the toughness of the elderly, Reichlin said.

"Physically, they are much less resilient than the young," he said. "When they are maxed out by an event like Hurricane Katrina -- dehydrated, malnourished and exhausted -- they often show signs of something that looks like dementia, which is sometimes called 'acute confusion syndrome.' That confusion -- the glazed and lost look that many Americans saw in the televised images of elderly evacuees from New Orleans -- usually goes away in a day or two with rest and nutrition, Reichlin said, assuming they do not have a preexisting medical problem, such as Alzheimer's.

When 24 elderly and middle-age evacuees arrived by van at the psychiatric center of the American Legion Hospital in Rayne, La., one of the elderly people was immediately diagnosed with Alzheimer's, according Charles E. Bramlet Jr., a psychiatrist who runs the center.

"In 24 hours, we were surprised to see that it cleared up," Bramlet said. "We saw a much better outcome with the elderly patients than I thought we would when they were taken out of that van. We have released most of the elderly to their families, while many of the younger adults are still in the hospital."

According to Cohen, the psychiatrist at George Washington University, recent CT-scan research on a structure of the inner brain called the amygdala, which is believed to process emotions, suggests that older people tend to filter out painful experiences more than young people.

"Most people would intuitively think that older people would not be able to handle adversity," Cohen said. "But they have survived the death of a significant other, loss of prestigious work, loss of health. They are very high on the scale of creatively adapting to adversity."

Harold Gerkin, 82, knows adversity as only hurricanes can dish it out. Counting Katrina, he has lived through five major hurricanes while refusing to leave his home in Pilot Town, La., the southernmost human habitation in the swampy archipelago that juts south of New Orleans.

"I survived Camille in '69, with 200-mile [per hour] winds, so I figured I could handle this one," Gerkin said.

Katrina, though, demolished his house under 25-foot waves. When he saw water rising on the road near that house, he and his son, Charles, 47, fled to a nearby two-story structure protected by hurricane-storm sheathing.

Katrina, though, tore much of that structure apart.

"The damn building kept shaking so much, pilings were rammed through the floor and waves broke over the balcony on the second floor," Harold said. "At dawn, with the wind blowing like it blew with Camille, we saw two houses and a big barge float past us. If that barge would a hit us, we were gone."

After Katrina passed, the Gerkins were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter and are now living as evacuees in a hotel in Baton Rouge. Friends say that Charles seems numb since the storm and has had a hard time calming down.

But Harold, his father, said he does not have nightmares about the storm and he does not regret having tried to weather it.

"To tell you the truth, I never even thought about that stuff," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company