Margaret Morganroth Gullette

(WOMENSENEWS)–Amid all the devastations of Katrina, what group was most vulnerable?

If you followed the news compassionately, you might say, "the poor," "African Americans," "women of color." The best answer is actually "old."

Older New Orleanians were most at risk by being also predominantly poor, female, African American, and (sometimes) weak, ill or institutionalized. They couldn’t crawl out on roofs or set off on highways alone with their backpacks.

It’s not that some news didn’t cover this. We know that dozens of helpless people in one nursing home died, and a hospital is being investigated for euthanasia. As the Houston Chronicle noted, Katrina was "one of the worst medical catastrophes for the aged in recent U.S. history."

"The elderly and critically ill plummeted to the bottom of priority lists as calamity engulfed New Orleans," said a Sept. 19 New York Times article by David Rohde, et al.

Older people "had special needs neglected by disaster workers. In New Orleans, some seniors died from dehydration even as they were being bused to safety," reported Nancy Weaver Teichert in the Sacramento Bee.

Even emergency workers may not know that dehydration comes faster in elderly people and is harder to reverse.

"Most Katrina Victims were Elderly," the Washington Post headlined Oct. 24.

Elderly Out of Focus

Yet there in the media is that unwillingness to use the word "old" or to conclude that this catastrophe is about old people. The information was available but the focus was missing.

In a "Frontline" Nov. 22 special report, Martin Smith reported that the "vast majority" of the 1,300 people who died in New Orleans were old. But that shocking statistic claimed only one sentence’s worth of attention in an hour-long show.

Aside from "old," the other missing keyword is "women." Women live longer than men and tend to wind up widowed, alone or in nursing homes. They are poorer than men. Almost 25 percent of women over 65 in New Orleans were poor, double the national average, according to the Washington-based Older Women’s League.

Were women a vast majority of those who died? Were most elderly evacuees female? Were most women of color? Check hurricane coverage in the media archives under keywords like "elderly" and "women" and you don’t come up with much.

But while you can’t get to the bottom of the story, you can certainly collect the evidence that older women bore the brunt. Newspaper stories about Katrina that have anything about old people, missing people, unclaimed dead or bodies recently found mostly refer to old women.

Aftermath Neglect Continues

Neglect of age continues in the "aftermath" stories. Reporters have been investigating conditions of prisoners and asking teen evacuees about their "unique" problems. What about the unique problems of frail, sick and old evacuees from the drowned city? Are they homesick, lonely, suffering from post-traumatic stress?

Did they have any Thanksgiving? What happened to the mothers and grandmothers? I keep thinking of a photo I saw in the Boston Globe of an elderly woman lying on a baggage remover at an airport. Has she moved on? And to what kind of life?

Ah, the disconnects. Here in the real world, elderly people–primarily poor women and women of color–were the neediest in a national emergency that took over the news. They were ignored, kept waiting for aid, died alone; somehow they fell to the bottom of priority lists.

A great opportunity now exists for educating the public about the multiple conditions of old age, the later lives of women and the profound sources and alienating effects of ageism. Every member of society benefits from seeing its elderly well treated. But Katrina shows how hard it is for younger people in charge of the story, the social response or the rescue effort to put themselves in the shoes of the vulnerable elderly. That is part of ageism: not hatred but ignorance, indifference and the failure to imagine oneself as older and in need of care.

One way to judge the coverage is to ask how it has changed anything.

Has there been enough attention to the sufferings of our aged to change public opinion and create better laws, rules or agencies for rescuing elderly women and men, especially those trapped in institutions? Has there been enough coverage to change private behavior, so that younger people hesitate next time to leave elderly relatives? Are Americans now likelier to be active on behalf of a collective anti-ageist agenda?

Is it crystal clear that old people have as much right to survive as younger people?

I don’t think so.

A Shameful Neglect of Age

Many news sources can be given credit for bringing racism and classism to the fore in Katrina coverage. But the American neglect of age is also shameful.

"This is a wake-up call," said frantic social workers and gerontologists in Houston doing triage. But to wake up Americans about age, the alarm clock has to sound much louder than the tinkle provided by the press to date.

The media need to focus on age with a sense of urgency. There’s a politics of aging in America. Misrepresentations of the elderly as "greedy geezers" must be challenged. Covering the age beat better will require emphasizing that elders are mainly women without pensions, living on Social Security–women get considerably less than men–and dependent on Medicare. They are, alas, even in dire circumstances invisible.

The Bush budget tried to cut Medicaid even as exhausted and traumatized elders return to New Orleans. Desperate to privatize old age, Wall Street, the business press and many leading Republicans have dogged Social Security for a decade and never give up.

If Katrina coverage had done its job, it would have indelibly convinced the most recalcitrant that old age needs to be spared these cruelties. Silence can be fatal; in this disaster and all the ones to come.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the prize-winning author of the 2004 "Aged by Culture," which was chosen as a noteworthy book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor. She is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. 

For more information:

PBS — "Frontline: The Storm":

Houston Chronicle–
"Reaching out to Aid the Elderly, Frail":