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Shaken Seniors Get Special Tips on Earthquakes

December 17, 1987|HUGO MARTIN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Almost three months after the Oct. 1 earthquake, 75-year-old Helen Metcalfe is still afraid to be alone in the dark. "I had a hard time getting over the quake," said Metcalfe, a San Marino resident.

Metcalfe's roommate, 84-year-old Aura Hoffman, said she has had no problem coping with the emotional stress and anxiety many elderly people experienced after the temblor. But Hoffman, who suffered a debilitating stroke several years ago, worries about whether she will be physically able to duck under a table or chair if another quake hits.

The two women joined about 300 other senior citizens who attended an earthquake preparedness conference at Caltech last weekend. The conference, sponsored by Caltech and by Huntington Memorial Hospital's Senior Care Network, provided information on how to cope with the effects of a major earthquake.

"Senior citizens need some special attention," said Shelly Glazer, manager of the Senior Care Network, a program that helps promote independence and wellness for the elderly of the San Gabriel Valley.

For example, she said, some senior citizens are not physically capable of crouching under a table or desk for protection during an earthquake. Some live alone and have no relatives in the area. These people need to plan for a quake especially carefully, Glazer said.

Virginia Kimball, an earthquake preparedness instructor with the Red Cross, stressed commonly known earthquake survival techniques such as staying indoors and watching for overhead fixtures that could fall.

She also offered advice specifically for senior citizens. Those in wheelchairs should turn their chairs away from windows and potentially dangerous fixtures such as bookcases, she said. If possible, they should roll out of their chairs and onto the floor, where they can protect their heads and necks with their hands.

"If you have trouble moving quickly, or if you would have trouble getting under a table, it's OK to stay where you are," Kimball said. "Just make sure that ahead of time you eliminate all fixtures that may be hazardous during a quake."

Kimball also advised senior citizens who live alone to find a neighbor willing to check on them in case of disaster. She also suggested that elderly people carry a police whistle so they can send distress signals.

"Everything that you do will make you a little bit better prepared," she said.

Kate Hutton, staff seismologist for Caltech, who has monitored earth movement in California for the last 10 years, explained what causes earthquakes and how they are measured. She reassured the audience that "despite what some psychics say, California will not drop into the sea anytime in the near future."

Craig Schweon, director of adult services at Pacific Clinics, a group of private, nonprofit mental health clinics, suggested techniques to help senior citizens cope with anxiety and stress.

Schweon advised them to talk to friends about their fears and anxieties. He said it can take up to six months for a person to recover from traumatic events such as earthquakes.

Elizabeth Siegal, manager of New Directions, an outpatient stress management program at Huntington Memorial Hospital, said quake-related stress can have serious side effects, such as insomnia, fear of the dark, nervousness, fear of being alone, decreased concentration and a greater need to be reassured about safety.

It is normal for people to grieve and feel nervous after a disaster, Siegal said. She advised quake victims to give themselves plenty of time to recover emotionally.

In an interview, Siegal said the conference not only provided information but also let senior citizens see that they are not the only ones who suffer from anxiety and stress.

Annie Chilingerian of South Pasadena said that until someone explained aftershocks to her, she panicked every time she felt the earth move. "Any noise or movement made me believe another earthquake was coming," she said.

She said she was glad she attended the conference because she felt safer knowing what do during and after a quake.

"The first thing I am going to do when I get home is to prepare for this," Chilingerian said. "At first I was panicked. Now I'm prepared."

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