New research shows why older adults are both vulnerable and resilient to climate disasters

Cong’s research indicates the increased vulnerability of older adults to climate change impacts while also highlighting their resilience capacity in the face of disasters, offering valuable insights for policy development and disaster preparedness.

Cong TKZhen Cong, Ph.D., director School of Public Health's Climate and Health InitiativeOlder adults are more vulnerable to disasters because of unique factors like health conditions. However, their potential to cope with negative outcomes and withstand financial losses builds resilience, according to University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher Zhen Cong, Ph.D. Cong’s research and insights on building a climate-resilient society highlighting her findings on older adults’ vulnerability and resilience to disasters was recently shared at the September edition of the NIH’s Climate Change and Health monthly seminar series.

“It is important for us to understand why older adults are vulnerable or resilient to disasters,” said Cong, professor in the  Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “In understanding these reasons, we can work together to build a disaster and climate-resilient society in a time with population aging and when everyone is aging.”’

Cong, director of the School of Public Health’s Climate and Health Initiative, was selected as a Climate and Health Scholar by the National Institutes of Health earlier this year to reduce health threats from climate change across the lifespan and build health resilience around the world, especially among those at highest risk.

Older adults’ vulnerability

Older adults, especially those with preexisting health conditions, are the most vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.

“The severity of weather conditions causes increased heat-related illnesses, vector-borne diseases, air-quality problems and mental health issues in people with preexisting health conditions,” Cong said.

Research indicates that older adults ages 65-75 are also less likely to set aside money for emergencies if they are in disadvantaged communities, adding to their unpreparedness. Quality emergency plans rich in content are crucial to disaster resilience, according to Cong’s research; but older adults are less likely to create and possess them.

“An important aspect of quality planning for disasters is family discussions, and my findings show that older adults are more reluctant to engage in those discussions,” Cong said. “Older adults are also more vulnerable to family issues, such as family members’ declining mental health, than are younger adults.”

Older adults’ resilience

According to Cong’s research, older adults between ages 65 and 74 had better coping appraisals than did younger adults. They also are more resilient to financial losses and stressful experiences than are younger adults.

These findings about older adults’ unique vulnerability and resilience can potentially guide and influence policymaking, improving interventions that promote countrywide disaster preparedness, accounting for the nuances in regional factors.

Heterogeneity among older adults

Cong’s research highlights heterogeneity among older adults themselves and expanded disparities in later life, thus older adults’ vulnerability and resilience must be carefully examined in a multilevel layered vulnerability and resilience perspective.