En español | The heat was oppressive, yet Marie Therese Alaine, 88, lay covered with blankets. Months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, her body tells the story of all her country has been through. Skin hangs on bone, leaving knees and elbows that look as if they’ve been sharpened to a point. Her eyes, clouded by cataracts, stare at nothing yet plead for something that her demented mind cannot convey.
Alaine is one of dozens of older adults living in a makeshift tent village outside Asile Communal, the government-run nursing home in Port-au-Prince. Except for when she is bathed, Alaine spends her entire day propped up on a stiff cot that is undoubtedly harsh on her bony frame. She is too weak to walk; but even if she weren’t, the burn on her foot would make standing in line for water, for food, for the bathroom, impossible. So she waits for the essentials she needs, relying on little more than her faith and the kindness of others.
Martin Gorbien, a medical doctor, cleans her wounded foot. Gorbien oversees geriatric medicine and palliative care at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, but here he is a volunteer with HelpAge International, an organization that specializes in the needs of older people. With no medical record system, Gorbien can only assume what kinds of treatments she has received. He tries to ignore the frustration he feels, frustration that has filled him since the first day he arrived in Port-au-Prince. In the United States, or anywhere with a functioning medical system, Alaine’s wound would be healing more quickly. She would not be malnourished and dehydrated. The cataracts that blind her would have been removed long ago. She wouldn’t be sleeping outside in a tent.
Alaine is one of the estimated 200,000 people over age 60 displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. Many, like Alaine, suffer dementia. Blindness is rampant, Gorbien says. Lack of food and water has hit all Haitians hard but particularly the elderly, whose bodies are less resilient against dehydration and malnutrition.
Able-bodied older adults in the camps are more often than not battling silent killers such as high blood pressure, says Gorbien. During his 10-day medical mission he doled out 30-day supplies of medications such as anti-hypertensives. He is sure that his effort likely prolonged life, calmed the patients and eased suffering—but didn’t cure anything. “Most all of the older adults that I saw will be dead within a year,” Gorbien says. “And they’ll be dead because of malnutrition and dehydration.”
An insurmountable problem
For many older Haitians, pure luck helped them survive the earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people. Every Haitian has tales of miraculous survival and devastating loss, says Margaret Chilcott, emergency coordinator for HelpAge International, one of the many aid groups in Haiti but one of the few focusing on older adults. For one older Haitian woman, a friend’s comment that “it’s too hot inside” made the difference between being alive on the street versus crushed by her collapsed house. Many others tell tales of losing adult children in the quake, a loss that rips not only at the heart but at the pocketbook. For many older Haitians, their children provided their sole source of income.
Being older in Haiti was difficult before the earthquake. So difficult, in fact, that the average Haitian lifespan is only 61 years. Those over age 65 make up only 3.4 percent of the population, compared with 13 percent in the United States.
While aid organizations are trying hard to assess the needs and demographics of the community in need, no reliable large-scale data has yet been collected specifically on older adults. “Without such baseline information, knowing where to begin and how to address older people’s needs remains a challenge,” says Rosaleen Cunningham, HelpAge emergency information coordinator.