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How Older People Got Left Out of Climate Planning

A conversation with Danielle Arigoni, author of the new book Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation

A house on very high stilts.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When we talk about climate solutions, we often hear the word resilience. It’s the catch-all term for all the things we’re doing to prepare for the impacts of climate change — things like building seawalls and hardening homes and switching to renewable energy sources. But planning for the future is a tricky thing, and, argues Danielle Arigoni, author of the new bookClimate Resilience for an Aging Nation (Island Press), there’s one section of American society that is left out of resilience as we think of it today: older adults.

Arigoni spent much of her career working as an urban planner for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it was only once she started working at the AARP that she came to see how aging populations were often left out of urban design considerations. Now the managing director for policy and solutions at National Housing Trust, Arigoni spends her time working on climate-friendly affordable housing solutions.

Resilience, she writes in her book, is not just a matter of hardening physical infrastructure to keep the natural world out, but should incorporate the social connections that shape our days. As the country’s population ages, designing climate solutions that take older adults into account will be crucial not only for saving the lives of older adults, but for creating a more just future for everyone.

I spoke with Arigoni about her research, and what a more aging-friendly form of resiliency looks like. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does climate change affect older populations in particular?

I mean, in a lot of ways. Certainly in disasters, we see that for a whole bunch of reasons, whether it’s mobility, or frailty, or cognitive decline, older adults are not able to respond in the same ways that younger people do. I think that’s partly a failure of emergency management to anticipate those conditions.

But even outside of disasters, we see that older adults oftentimes are living from a precarious financial standpoint. Fifteen percent of older adults live at or below the poverty line, which means they just do not have any available funds to decamp for a few days to safer ground or to weatherize their home or to stockpile resources.

And all of those things compile to a set of circumstances where older adults are either living in homes that they can’t afford to heat and cool in response to changing conditions, or they’re living in places where their homes are deteriorating because of climate impacts and they’re unable to fix them, which then sets off a kind of snowball effect of health problems as well. Something like 80% of all people over 65 have two or more chronic conditions, and when that gets layered on top of extreme heat and wildfire smoke and indoor mold and all of these other things, that multiplies the effects.

Does heat affect older adults in a different way from the larger population?

Heat is the deadliest extreme weather phenomenon in our country, and 80% of the casualties are older adults. And that is for a lot of reasons. To begin, older adults can’t process heat in the way that young bodies can; our ability to sweat changes as we age. So that’s part of it.

But heat also complicates and sits on top of underlying medical conditions and prescriptions. So there might be symptoms of heat illness that get masked because they resemble the effects of things like heart disease, or COPD, or respiratory challenges, or the effect of the medication, so it goes untreated.

And then when you layer on top of that the number of older adults who live alone, who may not even have someone to recognize that they’re starting to be disoriented and lose their balance, or that they are sitting in a house that’s 80 degrees when it really needs to be set at 72 because that person is too afraid of what their utility bills are going to cost that month.

All those factors compile and really just accelerate the risk for older adults in extreme heat. Extreme heat also isolates people further; they can’t go and knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for help if it’s 110 degrees out.

In your book you pointed out that there’s a link between where older adults live and climate risk.

Yeah, something like 50% of the older adults in the country live in about nine states. And those nine states are, for the most part, the states where climate risks are the greatest. So it’s places like California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Arizona, the last of which just saw six straight weeks of 100 degree temperatures this summer. And yet Phoenix is one of the fastest growing areas for older adults. So you have to, at some point, stop and kind of scratch your head and wonder how we can better inform people so that they aren’t moving into areas where they are taking on greater risk.

Phoenix, to its credit, has already said they’re stopping new development because they’re running out of water. That was a recognition of the intersection between resources and habitability and development patterns. I don’t think we’ve necessarily done that, for the most part, in many communities. I think that’s a decision no local official wants to make. They don’t want to say they’re anti-growth.

There’s an interesting political conundrum here. Some of these places, like Florida and Texas and Louisiana, are places with legislatures that aren’t, shall we say, very climate-forward. And these older adults you’re concerned about might not care much for it either. So how do you navigate that?

It has to be education, right? There’s something in the lived experience of seeing that hurricane season is becoming longer and more frequent. That is testing even the presumptions of people who’ve been in Florida for a long time thinking they can live through it. When you’re experiencing more and more disasters to the point that it’s truly interfering with your well-being or maybe your financial viability —, like if all of your money is tied up in your home and your home is now in a floodplain, for example —, it prompts some very real and very timely conversations about what to do. So it’s just a matter of time before the real cost of being in some of these places becomes hard to ignore.

There’s a section in your book titled “Climate Planning and Disaster Resilience Tools Generally Fail The Age-Friendly Test.” What does resilience look like today, and how is it falling short for the elderly?

I think one arm of resiliency is the energy efficiency and carbon reduction set of activities, which is where we’re striving to reduce our carbon emissions. And we’re going to put in place a whole bunch of policies and programs to drive down the cost of that initiative. Another pillar is in hazard mitigation planning. FEMA unlocks a lot of hazard mitigation dollars for states and communities that have completed a plan before disaster strikes.

So those are kind of two disparate pillars: One is climate mitigation, and the other is risk mitigation. Neither of those think about age in a concerted way right now. In the requirements that FEMA just updated for state hazard mitigation plans that had been in place for like nine years, there’s one mention of considering demographic change when you’re writing your plan, but they don’t say you should project who your population is and what their needs are.

I think it’s a real missed opportunity, because those mitigation plans set the course for all the FEMA funds that follow. Oftentimes they become a vessel which other public resources are poured into as well. If you’re not identifying the needs of older adults right at the outset, you’re really missing that nuance in terms of what risk mitigation looks like for them.

Similarly, on the climate mitigation side, there’s a whole set of activities around, for example, making New York state a great place to age, but they don’t tie into the climate plan that New York state has put in place. Wouldn’t it make sense if we focus those investments in bringing utility costs down, in incorporating renewable energy and making energy efficiency investments, in those same places where we know older adults are already paying too much for their housing and are unable to afford to keep their utilities running or upgrade their homes? That would reduce their risk too.

I’m curious about the shortfalls of the solutions that we do build. I think a lot about how in places that are hurricane-prone, for example, you see a lot of houses on stilts. And I’m wondering if there’s just a simple mobility problem here.

I think that there’s sometimes a failure to acknowledge mobility challenges, certainly with elevating homes, but also just in terms of accessing transportation options, and relocation or evacuation options. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t accessible elevated homes, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen any with my own two eyes. But I don’t necessarily know that that’s a really thoughtful solution. Even when we think about cooling centers that are being established for heat waves, it’s great that those exist, but I’m not sure that planners are always thinking about how people are getting to them. Those kinds of breakdowns that are part of the problem.

The harder conversation, frankly, is how do we relocate people out of harm’s way when elevating maybe is not going to be a very sustainable solution? Relocating is such a thorny topic, I think particularly so for older adults who may have lived their entire lives in one location. The notion of moving and being displaced because of climate change is a very, very difficult kind of identity crisis. It’s a pretty philosophical challenge, in addition to all the logistical challenges of moving your home, your community, and your livelihood.

What does climate resilience geared towards older populations look like? It sounds like you’re advocating for essentially an overhaul of a lot of things, because there are all these interconnected systems.

Yeah, it’s not a simple solution. When I think about what a climate-resilient community looks like, it certainly includes all the hard infrastructure that you would want — sea walls or levees, the sort of infrastructure that we think could mitigate risk. But it would also include a lot more thoughtfulness about how we’re designing our communities to live in every day. So thinking about different ways of designing housing, for example: how do we create communities where there’s more housing choice, so people can live in smaller units that will consume less energy and encourage more organic interaction than you see in suburbs? Hopefully they’ll be fueled by renewable energy as well so you’re eliminating that utility cost burden that is really problematic for low-income older adults.

There’s also making sure we have a robust transportation system so that you have not just a public transit system that works and gets people where they need to go every day of the year, but is also designed in ways that allow people to still use it when it’s hot. That means shade and seating, maybe even cooling factors at bus stops. Because otherwise, this transit system will not serve people if it is too hot outside. So you really have to think holistically about all of the elements that it takes to make a more climate resilient place.

I would also say communication and social connectedness is a huge part of it too. A good number of older adults do not have in-home internet or smartphones, so they don’t access the internet on a daily basis. So if you’re relying upon these systems to notify people or to get them to sign up for things that are going to reduce their risks, then you’re probably missing a whole bunch of people. So how do you cultivate a multi-pronged approach where you’re using all the levers you have available to you, including people like home health aides, or service organizations like Meals on Wheels, to get information to people in ways that they can access and utilize it?

Your point about home health aides reminds me that you drew a connection between climate and COVID-19 in your book. What lessons can we learn from the pandemic that can be applied to climate change?

Tragically, what we learned is that older adults are viewed as expendable. I think we somehow accepted the fact that a wildly disproportionate number of people who die from COVID-19 were older adults. It didn’t cause the kind of outrage that I think it should have. And I think some of that same thing is happening here with climate-fueled disasters.

COVID taught us the importance of getting information and support to people in their homes. I think there’s this presumption that when we plan for nursing homes we’ve checked the box, we’ve covered older adults’ needs. But that’s only true for a very small number of older adults — the vast majority live in their homes, often alone, particularly older women. And so how do you get services and information to folks in their home in ways that understand and appreciate their mobility challenges?

It’s interesting that so much of what you’re talking about is communication. I feel like when people hear the word resilience, they think of these big plans to transform the built environment.

I think communication is a huge part of why we’re here. And by that I mean the inability of these different siloed technical fields to communicate with one another. Emergency management and hazard mitigation people use a very different language than aging advocates do, who use a very different language than sustainability advocates do. They speak different languages, and they report in different structures, and they’re funded by different agencies. And never the twain shall meet. There are not a lot of opportunities where those things come together like they should.

My hope is that by communicating more effectively with aging advocates in terms that they understand, using programs that they are responsible for administering, they then see climate change as part of their mission. It needs to be the same way when talking to emergency managers about hazard mitigation plans: We can begin to unpack the unique needs of older adults that might be falling through the cracks in terms of their existing planning efforts. We really need to create this middle ground of understanding.

Do you have a favorite solution? Or maybe a favorite place that has implemented these solutions well?

The one that comes to mind — and I’m a little biased because I went to school there — is Portland, Oregon.

During COVID, they developed a framework to get supplies into the homes of an array of people in the city, to ensure they had what they needed, whether it’s food or diapers or adult incontinence supplies. These are things that were really important to get to people. Then they layered that with really effective community-based organizations that could reach committees that were hard to reach. So they had a Latino group reaching Spanish speakers, they had an Asian American group reaching Asian immigrants, and so on.

After the pandemic, Portland was able to use their relationships with those groups during two summers in which terrible heat waves hit the region. They quickly deployed those same organizations to get portable heat pumps into people’s homes, and they prioritized low-income older adults. They were able to do that because they’d already cultivated that tradition of serving people in that community through trusted organizations. And I can’t help but think that it saved lives.

What do you think the federal government should be doing differently around climate resiliency and aging? Are there particular policies you’d like to see that target aging populations?

I think it needs to happen at all levels, from the local to the regional and state levels. And that can be accelerated by work at the federal level. So for example they could require that hazard mitigation plans, and applications for HUD programs, or BRIC, which is a FEMA program, have to include an analysis of demographic change, and what that means for people over 65.

That’s a step forward, because then you’ve got state planners and local leaders thinking about what their aging population needs, because the share of older adults is only going to grow, it’s not going to diminish.

Similarly, the Older Americans Act is going to be reauthorized soon, and that funds all kinds of agency work that supports home and community-based services so that people can age in place. There’s a real need there to acknowledge the fact that climate change is going to interfere with some people’s ability to do that. And that might mean that they need more utility assistance, because now they have to run the air conditioner longer or put the heater on more frequently. Or it might mean that they need different kinds of supports, like making sure these folks can evacuate during a flood.

Is there something you found in your research that people seem to constantly get wrong?

There’s a general impression that older adults are living their best lives, they’ve got their retirement savings and are going on cruises and playing golf. But it’s just not the case for so many older adults. Something like half of all people who are unhoused right now are single people over 50. There’s a whole set of upstream financial challenges many older adults face, including paying way too much of their income for housing because rents have skyrocketed and they often have fixed incomes. Not to mention all the other expenses that go along with getting older, such as prescriptions. So climate Is a risk magnifier financially as well.

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Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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