Shelters present issues for seniors

The news has reported many stories about why senior citizens did not use the shelters that were opened after our recent windstorm. Many shelters did not have the numbers they were expecting after such huge power outages all over King County. For many, shelters became “warming centers” or day use as most people went home to spend the night.

There are many issues and reasons as to why senior citizens chose not to leave their homes for a shelter. I have many clients that tell me they are much more comfortable in their homes and they have experienced storms before and got through it. They can get through this one as well. It can be a very hard thing to do — just walk into a group of strangers in a shelter and feel comfortable. However the few that did use our Mercer Island shelters reported that the hot coffee, warm showers and electricity were much appreciated and wished they had come sooner.

Some seniors have reported that they were fearful that their homes might be vandalized or their valuables stolen while they were gone. Many of my clients were surprised at how long it took to get their power back. Historically they never had to wait this long before. For others it was their worry about their pets and how they would be taken care of if they left for a shelter. Shelter sites may wish to revisit this, and see if there is a good way to accommodate people and their pets.

Many seniors that have physical or mental health problems may find it difficult to go to a shelter. For some, their mental health diagnosis may interfere with their ability to make decisions for their safety and well-being. For others their physical limitations like mobility or use of medical equipment make it almost impossible to utilize the shelter with the general population. One of my wheelchair-bound clients said his caregiver strongly encouraged him to come to her house where she had a wood burning stove for warmth. He absolutely hated the idea of leaving his apartment but knew that he could not stand the cold for a week, so he went.

Financial concerns can also limit what seniors do for safety. Many people were able to get to hotels for the days they were without power, but there are still people who do not have the finances to pay for it. Transportation issues also thwarted seniors from leaving their homes in search of warmth. I heard a few tales of neighbors helping seniors on the Island by cutting away trees that blocked driveways so that the seniors could leave.

Finally, my clients have told me that going to a shelter would be hard as they truly enjoy their privacy. Many clients told me it would feel like communal living again and they have not done that for more than 40 years. Some leaders have kicked around the idea of re-naming “shelters” so that there is a better connotation to it. Calling them “warming centers” or just “community centers” may encourage more to utilize this supportive service.

This list, of course, is not just for senior citizens. When I asked myself why I did not go utilize a shelter during the outage, my answer was to just bundle up, and get through it. Will I think differently when I am 80 or 90? Probably not.

Betsy Zuber, Geriatric Specialist provides social services to people 55+ and their families who live on Mercer Island. Please contact her at (206) 236-3525, e-mail, or mail MIYFS 2040 - 84th Avenue SE, Mercer Island, WA 98040. Mercer Island Youth & Family Services is a department of the City of Mercer Island.

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