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What Sandy Was Like for the Elderly

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Distance, we are told, lends enchantment. Living as we do on the 46th floor of a high-rise in Manhattan, I have seen the enchantment: the pearly glow of the moon on the East River, four bridges laced with necklaces of diamonds and a tapestry of ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz lights as far as the eye can see, illuminating LaGuardia and JFK airports, casting a glow over the borough of Queens, and stretching into the ocean towns of Long Island.

Then Hurricane Sandy came, extinguishing all those lights as well as our own. For 48 hours we had no power, no phone, no water, and for 24 of those, I was marooned in an island of silence, alone with an elderly husband with Alzheimer's, and no elevator.

Our electricity was speedily returned and our life quickly assumed its normal rhythm. But outside the windows now, distance offers not enchantment but perspective. Hurricane Sandy has left behind flooded communities, deaths, homes, hopes, destroyed, hospitals evacuated. It brought out the best of us -- volunteers, by the thousands, many of them would-be Marathon runners making floor to floor, door to door calls, manning distribution centres to give out food, water, blankets, others rolling up their sleeves to wield shovels and rakes, tackling mounds of mud and debris.

And it brought out the worst of us. If there is a Dante-like roster of worst crimes, surely looting your neighbour's home, gouging prices, or pretending to be a caregiver only to be a robber, is close to the top of the list. Fortunately, this group is outnumbered by the good guys, but that there are any is despicable.

I can tell you the numbers -- 48 dead in New York alone, more than half of them on Staten Island. But these are not numbers -- they are two little boys, swept from their mother's arms by a hungry wave; they are a father and daughter, tossed into the marshes still clad in their pajamas; a man who after moving his family to a higher floor drowned in his own basement; a couple who ventured out to walk their dog, only to be killed by a falling tree. On and on, down the list, lives lived and lost. Real people. Real families. Prayers said. Prayers unanswered.

Now, we see pictures of what is called a mountain of debris. Surely it is a mountain of heartache: photo albums, wedding pictures, a christening dress, a baby's mug, a teddy bear, a doll, grandma's favourite cup and saucer, a baseball glove, a precious book, tapes of the bar mitzvah, an heirloom tablecloth, hard-earned furniture and carpets, the sunroom it took years of saving to build. Look around you at what you think is precious and imagine it buried under water, mud and, in Breezy Point, turned to ashes in a fire, all of that now scooped up by the sanitation department to be added to the mountain that is politely called debris, but is, in fact, the essence of your life, all that you have worked for, created, held dear.

Imagine that you are one of the 600 New York Police Department employees whose homes are in the Rockaways, working day and night to save lives when you know your own home and family are in the path of danger but you cannot reach them, do not know their fate.

Distance brings perspective. Our little adventure was nothing compared to all this. But it also brings perspective to the need for society to understand what it is to grow old. They were told to evacuate, implored to evacuate, but many did not. Some are still stranded on higher floors without power, heat, elevators, dependent on volunteers to bring them water, food, warmth, connection with the outside world. And now, with a Nor-Easter roaring into New York, they are being told again to evacuate. From a distance you may ask, why don't they?

Meet them, what they are really like. Yes, you may know someone 90 who is bright as a tack, still drives and lives an independent life. But for everyone like that, there are the others, whose arthritic bones move slowly, who think slowly, process information slowly, make decisions slowly.They move with an array of "stuff." Every aging body carries with it all or a combination of the following: dentures, distance and reading glasses, hearing aids and batteries, medications, some of which have to be taken several times a day, ointment for thin, easily bruised skin, diapers, a cane, walker or wheelchair, oxygen, catheters, injections. The thought of trying to move all that, with help, let alone by yourself, or with an ailing partner, to say nothing of a dog, a cat, a bird, is surely daunting. To go where? To a shelter with hundreds of others, to be in noise and confusion, removed from all that is familiar.

Old age: let me tell you, it is definitely not for sissies. And nature: nature doesn't give a damn. It makes no distinction between babies and grandparents, the frail and the strong, it just sends its waves and its winds. Beware those who do not, or cannot, get out of its way.

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