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When climate disasters like wildfires, flooding, heat waves, or polar vortexes grip communities, they hold a sharper threat for older adults, whose numbers in the US and Canada are growing. And even beyond these more headline-grabbing events are the everyday activities that may prove more challenging for older adults to perform independently in a warmer world. In Cascadia, that might look like being able to afford air conditioning to keep cool as the summers get hotter. Or so one can close the windows against wildfire smoke to keep indoor air safer for breathing, especially for those with respiratory ailments. 

Housing expert and community resilience advocate Danielle Arigoni argues in her new book that adapting our communities to better serve the needs of older adults—generally defined as those 65 and older—in fact makes our communities safer, more livable, and more climate-resilient for everyone. Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation draws on her long experience in urban planning and community development to offer a new process and framework for how towns and cities can approach both disaster recovery as well as everyday decisions about how they’ll build and change. 

Sightline interviewed Danielle about her findings. Her book is available from publisher Island Press and other places books are sold. 

You’ve been thinking about and working on these issues for decades. What prompted you to start writing this book? 

When you think about the fact that Katrina was nearly 20 years ago—when 70 percent of the people who died were over 65—and that the rate of fatalities for older adults is virtually unchanged since that time, it’s pretty sobering. And maddening.

I was compelled to dive into this topic after seeing some statistics that showed older adults dying at much higher rates than the rest of the population in a slew of disasters: Hurricanes Katrina, Florence, Maria, Ian, and Ida. But also in Winter Storm Uri, the California Camp Fire, and then again in the Pacific Northwest heat waves of 2021 and 2022. In all these cases (and more), older adults represented upwards of 50 percent, two-thirds, or even 85 percent of the people who died. When you think about the fact that Katrina was nearly 20 years ago—when 70 percent of the people who died were over 65—and that the rate of fatalities for older adults is virtually unchanged since that time, it’s pretty sobering. And maddening. 

I have to credit AARP for really helping me to understand the impacts of our built environment on older adults, which invariably fuels the disaster rates we see here. I am an urban planner and have worked at the intersection of housing, transportation, and infrastructure for 20-plus years—always with an eye to ensuring that it could be improved to deliver better environmental and social outcomes—but I confess that I had some blind spots about the needs of older adults and people with disabilities. My five-year tenure as Director of Livable Communities at AARP really opened my eyes and helped me recognize the connections between the climate resilience work I had done previously at EPA and HUD, and the opportunities to better align that work with the needs of older adults.  

I realized that there was virtually no information out there that connected the dots between two massive trends: climate change and our rapidly aging population. My hope was that I could start to create a common understanding of those connections in ways that would compel work in both the aging and climate fields. That is the gap that I hoped to fill with this book. 

How do climate impacts especially affect older people in our communities? 

Climate impacts older adults in so many ways, some of which are unique to them, but many of which are shared with people with disabilities, low-income people, and disinvested communities.  

For example, extreme heat impacts everyone, but for older adults it is especially deadly. 2023 was the hottest year on record on Earth so far, which of course affects everyone—but not equally. Extreme heat is now the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the US, killing more than all other weather-related causes combined. Heat-related illnesses lead to 12,000 deaths each year, and 80 percent of the people who die are over 60. We saw this in stark relief in the Pacific Northwest heat waves of 2021, when 1,000 people died. In Multnomah County, where the largest number of people died, the average age was 67. 

That’s because older bodies don’t process excess heat the same way as younger bodies. Fatigue and weakness from heat exhaustion can be missed because they mimic other conditions, thereby going untreated. Already, 80 percent of older adults live with two or more chronic conditions, meaning that those ailments (or their corresponding medications) can mask the symptoms of heat exhaustion.  

Extreme heat also poses a risk because nearly 30 percent of older adults live alone in the community—in homes or apartments, by themselves, without spouses or family or in-home care. We know from research that Eric Klinenberg did following Chicago’s 1995 heat wave that isolation and lack of social connectedness translates into additional risk during disasters, like heat waves. For older adults who live alone and are isolated, that may mean that that they don’t have someone to observe those telltale symptoms of heat exhaustion or to check on them to ensure that their homes are sufficiently cool, or that their basic needs are met. 

I think about last summer in Phoenix, when the city endured a 31-day stretch of 110-degree or higher heat. For low-income people and for older adults, that means potentially unaffordable utility bills to keep their homes cool—or decisions to endure the heat to save money. For nondrivers and/or people with disabilities, including the 20 percent of older adults who don’t drive, that means having to navigate extreme temperatures to reach and wait at transit stops to get where they need to go. 

And naturally, these heat effects are more acute in areas that have been disinvested over time, where there are fewer parks, street trees, and green features that would lower temperatures and combat the urban heat-island effect. Those tend to be communities that are home to people of color and low-income households, fueled by the implementation of racist land use policies over time.  

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Marcy McInelly for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • All of this is precisely why I make the case that solving for the needs of older adults also solves for the needs of whole communities, because centering climate resilience in their needs can point the way to solutions that benefit all. 

    What are some aging-friendly solutions you’ve seen that also benefit these other vulnerable communities? 

    A lot of the solutions that mitigate risk for older adults also benefit communities as a whole and deliver particular benefits for low-income people and people with disabilities.  

    For example, providing support for those who wish to weatherize their home—to reduce energy costs, improve indoor air quality, or make it more climate-resilient—through repairs and upgrades, like insulation or floodproofing. Doing so not only benefits the current resident but also contributes to a more resilient housing stock that will benefit future residents, too.  

    But it shouldn’t stop there. Committing to a more resilient housing stock also means adopting zoning reform that encourages more dense, attached, and smaller homes in existing neighborhoods to reduce energy consumption, conserve open space, diversify housing options, and create more socially connected communities. When you layer in improved building performance standards, like the FORTIFIED building standards or fire-resistant building materials, then you’re really starting to create a more climate-resilient housing stock that serves current and future generations. 

    Relatedly, investing in transit and bikeable/walkable/rollable communities remains one of the most climate-friendly, age-friendly solutions that we can undertake. It is more important than ever to ensure that older adults (and others) have safe, reliable, affordable, and accessible ways to get around and reach needed services without a car, whether that is groceries on a normal day, or a resilience hub in a time of crisis. That means both designing a thoughtful system but also ensuring that transit stops are shaded, provide seating, and include safe and protected access for all users. Some of the more innovative approaches I’ve seen also repurpose buses as mobile cooling or warming centers during times of crisis. Those will be more readily used by older adults if they are already familiar with using the system on a regular basis. 

    Where should communities start when they want to take on some of these challenges locally? 

    I would suggest starting with an examination of where older adults live in the community, and endeavoring to understand what their needs are. There is often a presumption that most older adults live in nursing homes or assisted facilities. That is only true for 2.5 percent of older adults nationwide. The vast majority live in the community, and often alone.  

    If your community has already committed to becoming “age-friendly” by joining the WHO Age-Friendly Cities program or the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, that means that there is already some infrastructure in place to identify older adults and their needs. Typically, those efforts pull together a broad array of stakeholders to consider older adults’ needs related to housing, transportation, public space, communication and the like. It’s still uncommon for age-friendly planning efforts to actively consider climate adaptation or resilience, but they represent an ideal platform to do so. 

    At the most basic level, start by asking the question in every public investment or policy: does this increase or mitigate the risk of climate change impacts for older adults? 

    What’s one lesson you learned from some of the older adults you interviewed for the book that you think other readers might appreciate? 

    At the most basic level, start by asking the question in every public investment or policy: does this increase or mitigate the risk of climate change impacts for older adults?

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    I learned that, while there is absolutely a role for emergency preparedness at an individual level, it often isn’t sufficient. That can be the case for a lot of reasons. Older adults on fixed incomes don’t have enough money to sufficiently stockpile food or medications or relocate to a hotel to get out of harm’s way, assuming they can pick up and drive themselves. Older adults who live alone and rely upon outside support—such as Meals on Wheels deliveries for food, or home-based care providers—have little recourse when those systems are disrupted, either because of transportation failures (like flooded roads or transit interruptions) or because the volunteer or caregiver is facing a crisis themselves. People who are caretaking for a spouse with dementia, for example, or an aging parent who requires in-home medical equipment, have very complex preparedness considerations.  

    Increasingly, extended power outages be deadly for older adults. In New Orleans, eight deaths were reported following Hurricane Ida in 2021 because older adults living in upper-story apartments were trapped when their building lost power for weeks, rendering the elevators unusable. For me, that really underscores the importance of both tailored, thoughtful preparation as well as a real commitment to achieving community-scale resilience. 

    What makes you optimistic for an aging- and climate-friendlier future? 

    I am hopeful because people feel more compelled to act when they see things as being in their own best interest. Aging is something that happens to all of us; in fact, by 2034, we’ll have more people over 65 than under 18 for the first time ever. If we are each lucky enough to become older, it’s certain that we will want to live in a community that considers our needs in the face of our climate future. We’re not on a path to creating such communities at the moment, but if we each think about what the outlook is for our own grandparents, parents, and selves, perhaps that will catalyze the kind of action that is needed to truly create more resilient places for all.