June 23, 2024

From their hillside home above Barre, Vermont, Doug and Rhoda Mason thought they were safe. It was 11 July 2023, and record rains were flooding their small city.

Then, just before 5am, a landslide crashed into the Masons’ house. The mud hit with such force it pushed the structure 10ft off its foundation.

“It was like an explosion,” said Doug, who had retired 10 years earlier. It was his 78th birthday.

The Masons’ home was destroyed. They spent nearly two months looking for a rental they could afford, while staying with relatives. When they finally found a two-bedroom apartment, it was in Williston, 40 miles away. Now, they are nearly an hour’s drive from their family, doctors and the shop owners they’ve known for years – even their mechanic.

“Those were all a lot of little things,” Doug said, “but to put them all together, it’s a pretty devastating time.”

About 2.4 million adults were displaced by disaster over the last year, about one-fifth of whom were over 65, according to a recent census survey. Though most displaced people are eventually able to return to their homes, even temporary shocks like these pose particular challenges for older people, many of whom live on fixed incomes and have health and mobility needs that make managing home repairs or finding new places to live difficult.

Experts warn that as baby boomers age and the planet warms, more vulnerable people will struggle to find safe housing.

“Climate change is not abating and we’re not getting any younger,” said Danielle Arigoni, a managing director at National Housing Trust and author of Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation. “There are going to be more older adults, there could be more climate-fueled disasters. Climate change impacts are going to reach more parts of the country.”

A man cleans up his backyard from mud and sediment leftover from flash flooding in Barre, Vermont, on 11 July 2023. Photograph: John Tully for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Millions of Americans – of all ages – are struggling to find affordable housing, with shortages driving home prices up more than 40%, and rents up by nearly a third in the last four years, according to the National Association of Realtors and Zillow.

Climate disasters contribute to housing pressures. In 2021, one in 10 US homes sustained at least some damage from winter storms, hurricanes and other types of severe weather. But while wages have also gone up (albeit not as dramatically) during that time, many Americans over 65 live on fixed incomes, pensions and limited savings.

The Masons lived comfortably on social security benefits and part-time work they do together stocking Hallmark cards at stores around the region. They had paid off their house, a cedar shake three-bedroom they had bought back in 1982.

It was their starter home, but they never planned to leave. “I really figured that was going to be our ending home too,” Rhoda said.

The Masons couldn’t move into just any house, either. Because they both have had knee surgeries, units with steep stairs weren’t an option.

In New England, which has some of the country’s oldest housing stock, only about 20% of homes have basic age-friendly features like entries without steps and bathrooms and bedrooms on the main floor, according to the Census Bureau. About 40% of homes across the country have those features, but less than 4% of US housing units are estimated to be accessible for people with moderate disabilities.

“We just don’t have sufficient options that are affordable and accessible and well-connected to services for older adults,” said Jennifer Molinsky, who directs research on housing and ageing at Harvard’s joint center for housing studies.

Even before the flood, there was a mismatch between Vermont’s existing homes – many large, older houses – and the smaller, more accessible homes suitable for ageing, said Peter Anthony, 79, a state representative from Barre.

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After the flood severely damaged their longtime riverside home, Anthony and his wife moved to a one-bedroom rental apartment in downtown Barre. They had started to think about moving to a smaller home before the flood. “We joke, but you know it’s a hard joke, that we were forced to downsize,” he said.

The flood destabilized both homeowners and renters. Many older Barre residents feel “stuck” after the flood, said Shawna Trader, who runs a local LGBTQ+ support organization and a community group coordinating long-term recovery efforts. Some struggle with online aid applications, and others are simply overwhelmed by the physical and emotional damage the storm left behind.

“The recovery industry skews digital and that obviously creates a hurdle for a lot of our older folks,” said Trader. The challenges are compounded for older residents who have limited mobility, health conditions or lack strong social networks, she added.

Damaged homes from flash flooding in Barre, Vermont, on 11 July 2023. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Social connections are key to weathering and recovering from climate disasters, said Arigoni. When isolated, older adults have more difficulty evacuating or preparing for a disaster, she explained, noting they suffer much higher fatality rates than other age groups during wildfires, floods and other storms.

“These age impacts sit on top of all of the other inequities that come from being poor, from living in a disinvested community,” said Arigoni. Age “magnifies every other risk that that person is already presented with by virtue of their income, their race, where they live”.

The needs of older adults are often not at the forefront of climate resilience planning – but they should be, Arigoni said. Policies that support an ageing population, such as dense housing that is connected to public housing and services, can bring universal gains.

“The benefits accrue to whole communities when you think about climate resilience planning from the perspective of the needs of older adults,” Arigoni said.

Many Vermonters, including the Masons and the Anthonys are still waiting for buyouts for their damaged property.

The Masons are getting used to their new apartment in Williston, but they hope to one day return to Barre – or at least some place closer.

“It’s a very nice neighborhood,” Rhoda said. “But it’s not Barre.”

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