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Older Adult Specialists Travel To Haiti To Provide Needed Care To Vulnerable Nursing Home Residents

June 07, 2017

Two months after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the needs of older adults in the region remain an urgent priority. Dr. Martin Gorbien, a geriatrician, and Lauren Kessler, a licensed clinical social worker, both from Rush University Medical Center, will be among the first older adult specialists to travel to Haiti to provide care at make-shift nursing homes. Gorbien and Kessler will leave for a 10-day mission on March 18 to work with the relief agency HelpAge International.

According to HelpAge, an assessment by the Office for Coordination of Human Affairs and the Haitian government found that older people are by far the most vulnerable group affected by the earthquake. Ensuring that older people get food and maintain their dignity has been a real challenge in the overcrowded tent cities that have sprung up following the quake.

HelpAge is now managing a tent city to house the residents of the Port-au-Prince Municipal nursing home which was crushed in the earthquake. The agency is also assisting six other nursing homes and more than 200 older people living on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

While food, shelter and urgent medical care continue to be a challenge, the agency is also attempting to respond to the much more complex long term medical and emotional needs of older adults. The plan is to bring in geriatric specialists from the United States to examine each resident, diagnose ailments, recommend treatment and prescribe medication as needed. Gorbien and Kessler will be among the first volunteers.

"Many older adults have not been on needed medications since the earthquake. We will be treating many common problems such as hypertension, diabetes and other chronic conditions," said Gorbien. "And we anticipate a whole new set of problems will begin with the rainy season that brings additional waterborne diseases and the expected practical barriers to care"

In addition to helping with immediate needs, Gorbien and Kessler will work with HelpAge to assess and develop programs to address the long term and future needs of older adults in Haiti, such as housing and healthcare support.

"Older adults in Haiti were vulnerable before the quake," said Kessler. "Resources are limited for the whole country, and many members of the older population are not only caring for themselves, but also their grandchildren. It is a precarious situation."

Gorbien said he was pleased to find a program that is focused on older adults, a group that is often overlooked during relief efforts.

"In natural disasters, geriatricians are never on the list of people called to help, but there is a great need for them," said Gorbien. "The sad lessons learned as a result of the failed rescue of the vulnerable elderly during Hurricane Katrina will remain a shameful memory. The strongest people who can get to the front of the line are those who succeed. We are going to help the people who are having trouble because they can't do it for themselves and they may not have an advocate to do it for them. It is tough to grow old in Haiti. Only about 3-percent of the population is over the age of 65. These are people who are strong to begin with and they deserve attention."

Separately from Gorbien and Kessler, another group of seven Rush doctors and nurses is leaving for Haiti on March 18th as well. This group of pediatricians, emergency medicine specialists and nurses is part of the effort coordinated by the International Medical Corps (IMC). Rush has pledged to help the IMC send teams every four weeks to respond to the complex humanitarian emergency in Haiti. Additional teams will be leaving on April 15 and May 13.

To date, over 30 medical professionals from Rush have traveled to Haiti to provide medical care following the earthquake. You can follow the current team's progress and see video and photos from the previous missions to Haiti on the Rush News Blog at rushnews.rush.edu.

Rush University Medical Center