Like many natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy took a disproportionately heavy toll on the elderly. Of the 147 U.S. residents who died as a result of the super-storm (as fastidiously tabulated here by the blogger and consultant Whitney Hess), 108, or 73%, were 50 or older, and at least 50, or 34%, had passed their 70th birthday. Of course, older people tend to be less mobile than their younger neighbors, and are more likely to have health problems that a disaster can exacerbate. But some scientists now think that “social infrastructure”—the institutions and community relationships that surround and support a person—may be an equally important factor in determining how well someone of retirement age weathers a crisis.
Tighter-knit communities may see fewer fatalities from storms like Hurricane Sandy.
In an article in this week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine, New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg writes about a catastrophic heat wave that hit Chicago in 1995, killing more than 700 people. (The article is behind a paywall, but Steve Inskeep of NPR Morning Edition interviews Klinenberg here.) Most of the Chicago neighborhoods with the highest heat-wave death rates were poor and predominantly African American, Klinenberg writes, but so were several of the neighborhoods with the lowest heat-wave death rates. Indeed, looking at two adjacent South Side neighborhoods, Englewood and Auburn Gresham, researchers found that Englewood’s heat-wave death rate was about 11 times higher than Auburn Gresham’s, even though the two neighborhoods had almost identical demographics.
What made the difference, researchers came to believe, was that Auburn Gresham and other “resilient” neighborhoods had more elements of social infrastructure that brought neighbors into regular contact with each other: sidewalks, stores, restaurants and community organizations like block clubs and church groups. People were more likely to know their neighbors and to check on each other during the worst of the heat wave. And the benefits of that closer-knit structure seemed to stretch beyond times of crisis, too: Overall, life expectancy in Auburn Gresham was about five years higher than it was in Englewood.
As politicians and civil servants study how to prepare communities for the possible effects of future disasters or climate change, Klinenberg writes, they’re taking social infrastructure into account. And while it’s tricky to extrapolate broader lessons from these very specific situations, Klinenberg’s work does seem to reinforce the broader point that, for older people, social isolation can become a health threat in its own right. For the baby boomer trying to decide between a “Main Street” condo and a McMansion, or a retirement community and a farmhouse, it’s food for thought.