Another thing that Katrina has taught me:

When you are old, infirm and sick, you can’t absorb the shock of a catastrophic event as easily as when you were much younger.  

Even if you survive it, you are not going to be the same person.

You may be a goner.

Emma Dixon put it this way:

Five decades later, my mother was blown away by Hurricane Katrina. She survived the 160 mph winds, but the storm shook her foundations, as it did with the houses near her home in Bogalusa. Her health, already precarious, deteriorated steadily over this past year. She was hospitalized earlier this summer, and is still unable to come home.

I’m not alone in struggling with seniors’ reactions to Hurricane Katrina. One friend’s elderly mother dwindled from a size 14 to a size 8 over the last year. Seventy-six-year-old Rita Collins, according to an August 16 Knight Ridder article, died of a stroke in May after being moved twice in the aftermath of the storm. Her daughter Michelle said, “We were trying to get her back to Buras, but we never made it. It was the stress, not knowing where she was at. It killed her.”

While watching Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke with my downstairs neighbors, I had to explain to them why Herbert Freeman, Jr.’s mother Ethel could not survive the shock of being moved from her home to the Super Dome, no matter how tenderly she was cared for.  Sometimes we cannot understand how emotional turmoil can hasten death or bring on heart attack, stroke or dementia.  This includes crises brought on the sudden lack of medications or oxygen needed to keep them stable and their diseases at bay.  Many people died or nearly died from being without their medications.  My stepfather, who is 75, went without his meds for diabetes for five days.  I can’t even begin to imagine what he went through, especially having to look out for his wife, his daughter and her infant children, and his son-in-law.

It’s much easier for young and middle-aged adults to pick up and start a new life. The toll on the elderly has been tremendous, with their health weakened by anxiety, insomnia, and depression. The loss of homes, churches, neighborhoods and family treasures is more than the frail elderly can bear.

There were many who probably thanked the Universe that their beloved mothers/fathers/grandparents/uncles and aunts were not around to experience this horror.

And do you know who this much photographed woman is?  Her name is Milvirtha Hendricks and she is 85 years old.
Why should I be so concerned?

Well, I’m not young for one thing. Furthermore, I grew up among those who were considered at that time to be old people–my grandparents.  And they were old.  They had had hard lives and their bodies were tired or sometimes frail.

Dixon says later:

And many African American seniors, especially those with low incomes, already had more risk factors than their white counterparts. In ‘A Different Shade of Gray: Midlife and Beyond in the Inner City,’ Katherine S. Newman spotlights the challenges that working-class minorities face sooner and more severely than anyone else. The vast majority of African Americans now in their seventies spent their formative years in deep poverty, with little access to education. They worked very hard with little reward. Diabetes, cancer and heart disease hit them at younger ages than whites. Some lost children to dangerous street life, leaving them with too little family to help them and sometimes with grandchildren to support.

Seniors of color are less likely to own homes or have savings to cushion their old age. […] In black families, by contrast, the working generation more commonly needs to support the elders financially. Black homeowners are more likely to lose their homes to debt, foreclosure and bankruptcy, often after long illnesses not covered by health insurance.

It seems that little has changed from the generation of my grandparents to that of my mother.

We can see the latter occurring with Freeman caring for his mother until the very end.  There is always one son or daughter in a black family that does this until they are not able to do so.  And the reason why my stepfather lived in New Orleans was because he had cared for and later buried his 94-year-old mother.  She had left him her Josephine Street house four years ago, which now has a blue tarp on the roof.  He’d rather live in California, but now he lives outside Dallas. He still mourns her in a way.

One thing Spike’s film did not address (including the issue of rape in New Orleans during the catastrophe) was the alleged euthanasing of elderly patients–whether black or white–in hospitals and their abandonment in nursing homes as the waters rose or as medicine and water ran out.  Doctors, nurses, attendants, administrators left them to die.  The survivors must deal with their own guilt, bereavement and anger–and with lawsuits.

Any plans that American cities have for a emergency or catastrophic event must include the safe transport and maintenance of the elderly, including the development any mental health issues that may arise that will impact on their physical health.  Families must prepare for their elderly loved ones.  I’ve long known that quality of life is just as important as longevity of life.

And Milvirtha?

Blessedly, the elderly widow remembers almost none of this.

“Everybody tells me it’s better that I couldn’t remember the water or nothing,” she said recently from the apartment she and her eldest daughter share in Houston.

“They tell me I went to Arkansas and stayed there two or three days,” says the woman who bore 10 children and fed them on her laborer husband’s salary.

Hendricks is surprised to learn that director Spike Lee wanted to use the convention center photo in a documentary. She had no idea it had been used in newspaper ad campaigns to raise money for storm victims.

A framed copy of the photograph sits on the dresser in her bedroom. She often stares at it, trying to remember what many of us wish we could forget.