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Hard Road Home

New Orleans CityBusiness


New Orleans CityBusiness

Dr. Marion Somers is a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan and a full-time resident of Brooklyn. When she needs to de-stress, she says she does one of two things — throws a backpack and sleeping bag in her car and disappears for 24 hours, or hops on a plane to New Orleans for a three-day submersion into the local culture.

For her most recent trip to the Big Easy, however, Somers arrived in a converted 1966 Greyhound bus that acts not only as her mode of transportation but as a rolling office and film studio.

Somers, a specialist in geriatric care, arrived Oct. 26 as part of a cross-country trek during which she is producing a documentary on life as an elderly person in the United States. What she found in New Orleans was heart-wrenching, she said.

Before the hurricane 56,707 people older than 65 were living in Orleans Parish compared with 21,025 in 2006, a 63 percent decrease, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

“The elderly want to come back desperately but some are just too weak,” Somers said. “People always want to come back to where their roots are, where their community is, their church and synagogue. It’s like in the ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it they will come.”

But the problem is people aren’t building homes, mental health facilities or better transportation systems that the elderly depend on, said Tom Laughlin, CEO of the Jefferson Council on Aging.

“Everyone is beating their brains out to get things re-established to restore some of the things they would need to survive,” Laughlin said. “On the other hand, it looks like nothing is happening fast enough even after two years.”

In Jefferson Parish, the senior population has climbed 21 percent since the hurricane from 54,656 to 66,069.

Laughlin said many of the elderly from the hard-hit parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines moved to Jefferson after the storm destroyed their homes or damaged them beyond what they could afford to repair.

Before the storm many older people were living on the retirement savings having already paid off their mortgages.

“They were house rich and cash poor,” Laughlin said.

So when the storm damaged their homes, they couldn’t afford repairs and were forced to move in with family or friends. The loss of their independence resulted in severe depression, he said.

“So now you have a problem of anxiety and depression and loss and that’s not good for their mental health. Unfortunately there aren’t enough mental health services to help them.”

An estimated 1,800 people died during Katrina and 74 percent, or 1,332, were older than 60, according to the New Orleans Council on Aging.

Despite difficult conditions in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, many of the elderly insist on returning.

“There are people who want to come but can’t because there’s nothing to bring them home to,” Laughlin said. “And many of them are dying while they wait. It’s nostalgia gone crazy. Many of them, all they want to do is come home to die.”

When Somers and her camera crew traveled throughout New Orleans, she said the elder care community complained about a lack of money.

“They say things are in the pipeline but caught up in red tape and politics,” Somers said. “It’s disheartening because this is a city I know and love.”

Based on her travels throughout the country investigating the needs of the elderly, Somers said it is not only the New Orleans senior population that is suffering.

“We have a geriatric tsunami headed our way,” she said. “We have this elderly population that’s growing and we barely have the doctors, nurses and aid to take care of the population we have now.”

Nationally, there were 6,700 practicing geriatricians in 2006 compared with 9,000 in 1998, a 26 percent decrease, according to the American Geriatric Society.

“People are not going into the geriatric field because it’s not a good-paying field,” Somers said. “Doctors can make more money being surgeons and puffing people up with Botox to make them look younger.”

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