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EARTHQUAKE / THE LONG ROAD BACK : Double Dose of Hardship : Frailty, Fear and Isolation Make Quake Trauma Worse for Elderly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joyce Barry must work up her courage every time she climbs the stairs to her tiny third-floor apartment in Santa Monica.

“I’m scared to death to ever come in here,” said the small, matchstick-thin woman. “I talk to myself before I come up. I say everything is all right, but then within 15 or 20 minutes I get scared again.”

Barry shudders with fear and begins to cry.

At 64, with a weak heart and without anyone to help her, Barry is trying to cope with the terrifying memory of the quake that drove her into the street two weeks ago, and with the horrifying aftershocks that continually shake and rattle the old building in which she lives.

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She is among an estimated 500,000 elderly people--a quarter of them living alone--who reside within the areas hit most directly by the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake.

Disaster officials are increasingly concerned that relief efforts have overlooked many of the elderly who, like Barry, are frail, vulnerable and living without basic necessities.

“The services that are provided through the aging network services, particularly nutrition services, have been disrupted,” said Merrill Jacobs, chief deputy director of the state Department of Aging.

The agency is asking for $6 million in federal disaster funds for the aged, and federal officials such as Fernando Torres-Gil, assistant secretary of aging, are touring disaster zones. Officials say the amount of assistance needed for elderly quake victims is unknown but obviously great.

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So far, city and county officials have been promised only $100,000 in federal funds to deal with the problems of elderly quake victims who need food, shelter, medical care and counseling.

A toll-free phone number for quake aid to the elderly is to be established by county officials this week.

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The frail elderly are particularly vulnerable because they often have difficulty performing routine tasks necessary to get help, social workers say. Traveling to relief centers and standing in lines are sometimes impossible for them. Routine phone conversations with officials can cause anxiety and confusion. Relocation can be so disruptive and traumatic that it is life-threatening.

“When someone is frail and disconnected, it is very frightening to make a change, because you can lose sight of who you are,” said Maria Arechaederra, executive director of WISE Senior Services, an agency serving the elderly on the Westside.

A frail elderly woman who was transferred from a quake-damaged Santa Monica rest home died soon after arriving at another facility, said Barbara Kingston, care manager for WISE. “Regardless of the cause of death, she is definitely a victim of the earthquake,” Kingston said.

Of the 57 people who were officially listed as killed by the quake, 30 were 60 years of age or older. Many of those deaths were the result of heart attacks. (Overall, heart attacks killed 22 of the 57 victims.)

Hundreds of elderly people were displaced when five nursing homes in Santa Monica, Sylmar and Simi Valley were damaged by the temblor. In addition, at least 30 residential facilities that provide less intensive care for elderly clients were severely damaged. Dozens of senior service centers were also damaged.

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Lynn Bayer, director of the Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging, said her social workers are interviewing elderly quake victims at shelters and are answering calls for help, but acknowledges that officials have no idea how many older people are in need.

Bayer recounted the plight of an elderly blind woman who was afraid to leave her bed for two days after the quake because she heard glass smashing around her and feared injury if she got up. Aid finally came after a neighbor called relief workers.

Private agencies, such as Catholic Charities, are sending teams of volunteers--some of them elderly people themselves--into affected neighborhoods, trying to locate older people who may be injured, terrified or stranded.

But some social agencies that focus on the elderly have themselves been staggered by the quake.

A center operated by WISE in Santa Monica, where about two dozen Alzheimer’s victims and other elderly people took part in programs such as memory enhancement, gardening and dancing, was condemned after the quake. WISE staff members are trying to provide day-care services in makeshift offices to those clients most in need of aid.

WISE’s Arechaederra recalls a frantic plea from the daughter of an Alzheimer’s victim, who she said told her: “If you don’t take that man off my hands, I’m going to kill him.”

The WISE agency is providing counseling to help clients deal with the fear left by the quake, but that fear is deep-seated.

One of WISE’s clients, 73-year-old Gwen Warren, is convinced that she and her 79-year-old husband, Gene, should flee California, even though they have no funds for travel. Gene, a former disc jockey, is bedridden, unable to move and barely able to speak as a result of a stroke two years ago. He stays in a hospital bed in one room of the two-room apartment and Gwen sleeps in the other.

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When the quake struck, Gwen tried to rush to her husband’s aid, but a falling bookcase pinned her to the floor. Before she was able to extricate herself, Gwen lay under the solid oak case screaming in fear and anguish as she pictured Gene in the other room, alone, unable to rise or speak.

A retired nurse, Gwen spends all but about three hours a week in the two-room apartment caring for Gene. Their apartment has become a place of terror as well as confinement for them both.

“You just feel your bed is a place of security,” she said. “And now I feel like I have no security.”

Several blocks away, another client of the WISE agency sits alone in her third-floor apartment and prays for safety during aftershocks.

Molly DeGoes, who said she is “way over 75,” is so crippled by arthritis that she cannot climb stairs. The elevator has been out of service since the quake.

DeGoes said she pays a man $3 to go to the store for groceries.

“I haven’t been out of the house for a week,” she said.

Little Chinese figurines still stand on a knickknack shelf on a wall of the apartment, but the ceiling above them is marred by holes and cracks left by the quake.

DeGoes could not clean up the fallen plaster because of her arthritis, so she took $20 that her brother had sent her to buy a bathrobe and used it to hire a cleaning woman.

The cleaning woman normally charges $50 for her work, but she accepted $20 and a present.

“I got a pocketbook for Christmas,” DeGoes said, “and I never go anywhere so I gave it to her. And she was satisfied.”

On the staircase outside DeGoes’ apartment, Irene Gordon, who is in her 70s, struggles up to her fourth-floor rooms. She has been to the doctor and wears a bandage on a knee that has been sprained from climbing the stairs.

The plaster in Gordon’s two-room apartment is badly scarred by the quake and she lost precious dishes and a vase she had owned for 30 years.

Other than that, she said, there were no quake problems.

“I’m strong-willed,” she said. “I made up my mind once and for all: I try to do my very best. I go shopping by myself. I don’t rely on anyone.”

Still, she said, it would be nice to move downstairs: “I don’t want to live on the fourth floor anymore.”


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