Seniors a Cultural Resource to Look to in Trying Times

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Oppermann

Anxiety and depression. Rage and nightmares. Insomnia and irritability.

As we sort through the rubble of our psyches in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a professor at a small Minnesota college wants us to tap into a hidden, but powerful national resource.

"We need to make the elderly a cultural resource, to consult with them, hear their experiences, their seasoned perspectives. This is a perfect opportunity to come together," said Karen Larson, Ph.D., professor of cultural anthropology at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., who specializes in the impact of terrorism. "Making that connection will help heal everyone, young, old and those in the middle."

There is often little room or place for the elderly in our hyperactive, high-tech world. Others look through them or around them in search of solutions to pressing problems. But ignoring them means missing out on a national treasure.

That fact is only too evident to Karolyn Swanson, program manager of the senior services department at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.

"This population has worked very hard to make this country strong. Their strength and courage is truly remarkable. We need to view the elderly in a positive way, in a shining way, rather than look at them as vulnerable, frail, dull and declining," Swanson said.

In fact, Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., a Washington, D.C., psychologist specializing in disaster mental health during the Gulf War, found that even the very elderly living in nursing homes in the Middle East under scud missile attacks were surprisingly resilient.

Studying the effect of stress of nursing home residents living in a city subjected to missile attacks for three months, Garfinkel expected to find they suffered increased sleep disruption, deteriorating health, more visits to physicians and more deaths. But even six months after the Gulf War had ended, her team found no significant changes among the residents.

Several factors account for residents' positive coping methods, including consistent and credible communication by nursing home staff, mutual support, discussion, debate and staying in touch with the news. One other important factor was that these older adults were already well-schooled in survival.

"These were a group of people who had survived earlier wars, and worse," explained Garfinkel, who also served with the American Red Cross during national disasters, including major airline disasters. …