Many survivors of natural disasters experienced psychosocial problems (e.g., post-traumatic distress) due to adjustment to the loss of resources (e.g., housing, belongings, and family members). Older survivors are particularly vulnerable because their psychosocial distress is often exacerbated by their deteriorated health and declined capacity to adjust to new environments. Social support has been well documented as critical to older adults' well-being; yet, an earthquake may also damage an older individual's social support network by separating families and friends. Thus, it is critical to provide supportive services for older earthquake survivors who are placed in transitional housing after the disaster. However, little is known about whether such housing unities could cultivate a sense of community among those older survivors, and whether the sense of belonging to a community would compensate for their losses and thereby reduce their distress. This study examined the psychosocial distress among a sample of 299 older Chinese adults who survived the May 12th earthquake in 2008, which struck Sichuan province of China, causing 69,227 people dead, 374,176 injured, and 18,222 missing.
This study used survey data collected three months after the earthquake in one affected area in Sichuan, China. The mean age of participants was 69 (SD=7.5) years old, 55.2% were female, and 75% received a high school education. Psychosocial distress as a result of earthquake was measured by a revised 15-item Impact of Event Scale (Horowitz, Wilner, & Alvarez, 1979). The sense of community scale developed by Peterson, Speer and McMillan (2008) was used to capture the older residents' emotional connection, membership, and needs fulfillment in the community. Other covariates for earthquake distress include demographics (i.e., age, gender), older adults' physical and mental health status (e.g., self-rated health, emotional well-being), and resource variables (e.g., income, informal support). Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted.
The first model of hierarchical regression found that participants who were older, being female, living alone, perceiving lower income adequacy in relative to others, and having lower emotional well-being, were more likely to have higher levels of earthquake distress. The second model with the addition of the sense of community explained more variance in earthquake distress (p < .05). Those who reported a stronger sense of community were found to have lower levels of earthquake distress (p < .05). The total variance explained was 14%.
Our findings identified a subgroup of older survivors who are at a higher risk of psychosocial distress due to the disaster. The findings also highlighted the role of individuals' sense of community as a protective factor against psychosocial distress. Such findings have important practice implications for social workers and other helping professionals working with natural disaster victims. Providing a place for older survivors is far from sufficient to meet their psychosocial needs. Attempts to build trust and form a sense of belonging to the new community among survivors would help reduce their distress and facilitate a smooth recovery.