Population ageing and climate change arguably represent two of the most significant societal challenges this century. Climate change is leading to sea level rise and the frequency of extreme weather events, including floods. At the same time, population ageing is a demographic revolution affecting the entire world, with the 60 and over age category growing faster than any other age group. Whilst increased life expectancy should be seen as a success, it can be argued that society has become better at prolonging old age and frailty, and thus the likelihood of living with multiple, complex conditions and co-morbidities which increase sensitivity to climate change.
Given the physical, cognitive and mental health challenges of old age, together with shrinking informal supports and financial resources, it is perhaps unsurprising that older adults are more vulnerable group to deaths and morbidity as a result of extreme weather events. For example, we saw the disastrous effects of climate change on older adults in 2005 when nearly 60% of the flooding-related fatalities following Hurricane Katrina were among were among people over the age of 65. Increased social isolation and financial status also influence the ability to recover from climatic events. How able an older adult is to recovery from flood events is reflected in levels of resilience, adaptability and coping, both at an individual and community level e.g. individual capacities, the quality of social networks and levels of social protection offered through formal services.
Building resilience is largely dependent on developing age friendly communities that balance transport, housing and land use issues with improved social and community cohesion, such that communities can better prepare for and respond to flood events. To develop these assets and resources more needs to be done to engage older adults in the process, both through education in disaster management, understanding and designing for resilience, healthy urban planning and in co-designing appropriate solutions and strategies. Apocalyptic demography labels old age as a ‘problem’, where older adults are seen as a drain on resources, and where old age is viewed as a period of dependence. To build adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability, older adults should be recognised for the positive contribution that they can make as ‘agents for change’ e.g. as climate change champions, environmental monitors and through peer-to-peer learning. This is important if we are to respond to the challenges of an ageing population at the time of more frequent and intense flooding events.
Ryan Woolrych is a lecturer in Health in the Built Environment at Heriot-Watt University. His research interests include: aging-in-place; urban regeneration; health and well-being; sense of place; community engagement; and home, identity and belonging.