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Coastal Seniors and Climate Change: Retirement Dreams Threatened As Coastal Living Increasingly Risky

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Heather Goldstone
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For many people in coastal areas around the country, raising a home on stilts can save it from flood waters. But, for seniors, an additional flight of stairs may not be possible because of limited mobility.

When Nelson Orr, 70, retired from his job as an X-ray tech at a Boston hospital, he knew what would come next. He and wife moved full-time into their gray-shingled beachfront home in the town of Barnstable, embracing its original exposed beams and decorating with an old wooden carousel horse in the entranceway.

“This is my great grandfather's house that was originally built down here -- one of the first -- and it's been passed down through the family,” Orr said on a recent sunny day in his living room. “It was built in the 1920s.”

But lately, things have changed.

“Well, traditionally, the house would get flooded in hurricanes -- big hurricanes. The water would come up to the driveway, breach the driveway and then go into the basement to the tune of four or five feet. But it was kind of a rare occurrence,” Orr said. “But lately, I would say due to climate change, water levels are higher and we could get flooded with smaller storms.”

Last summer, Orr moved his heating system upstairs after flooding destroyed several furnaces, and renovated the driveway so that it slopes upward to prevent additional basement flooding. Now, he’s going a step further. He’s considering buying an apartment in the Greater Boston area for easier access to doctors’ appointments, and as a safe haven in case of a major storm.

“You're vulnerable down here at any age, but as you get older, it's just harder to do the cleanup. And, you know, you get tired,” he laughed. “We're old!”

Retiring to the shore is a deep-rooted American dream. In fact, more older Americans are living in coastal communities than ever before, with census data showing that the coastal population over age 65 rose by 89 percent over just a few decades. Many of those seniors want nothing more than to stay in their homes, but experts say threats from climate change could make it harder for them to do that.

Rising temperatures mean more heat strokes; more frequent flooding means less road access for emergency vehicles; and intensifying storms mean overburdened community care and medical systems.

“The bottom line is older adults and hurricane disasters and things of that sort don't mix,” said David Dosa, a geriatrician and associate professor of health services at Brown University. “And any time you expose an older adult to something like a hurricane, their risk of mortality, their risk of hospitalization, their risk of succumbing to any one of their other medical problems goes up.”

Of course, the impacts of climate change affect coastal people of all ages, but Dosa says age makes it harder to manage the destabilizing effects of nature and disease.

“Our lung function, for example, goes down. Our ability to manage hot and cold goes down. Our ability to respond to crises cognitively goes down,” he said. “So it's really a culmination … of many little cuts that ultimately give you less functional ability to weather the initial storm.”

Those storms will grow more frequent and intense, and likely will result in more power outages. That means generators will be increasingly important for seniors who may be more dependent on heating and cooling, or who rely on refrigerators to store their medication and well-lit homes to prevent falls.

“Being on fixed incomes, most of them, they don't have the resources for the generator,” explained David Karas, an aging-in-place remodeling specialist who said he’s worked with more than 150 seniors across the Cape. “They're in older homes. They're trying to keep up with their basic home maintenance.”

Mobility, he said, is a top issue for the clients he serves. In many coastal areas around the country, raising a home on stilts can save it from flood waters. But, for seniors, adding a flight of stairs is moving in the wrong direction. It can also be deeply isolating as the climb becomes a barrier to casual trips.

“They have voiced concerns to me: if a road floods, if a pole comes down, if the wires are across the road, and they have a medical emergency,” he said, “what are they going to do and who's going to help them?”

That’s a question that 89-year-old Jan Hively, of Harwich, has asked herself.

“I realize that I really have to watch every step I take,” she said. “At the same time, I can feel my mind changing, the thoughts flood in, and my sense of focus floats out on the top of that flood.”

But the self-described “young octogenarian” and co-founder of a positive aging network said she doesn’t feel especially vulnerable.

“I feel as if I can adapt to anything,” she said with a laugh. “I also think that if I really watch out, I can live to be 100 because my sister’s 99 and I’m damn well going to stay alive as long as she’s around.”

But the resilience and determination of seniors now and those to come will likely be tested, as coastal living collides with the intensifying impacts of climate change.

Resources for Seniors:

Barnstable County Emergency Preparedness

Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands

Cape Cod Councils on Aging

Samaritans Cape Cod and the Islands

Aging in Place