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Sense of Loss

Elderly Ousted by Spring Floods Suffer lonliness, Depression
Copyright © 1997
Copyright © 1997 The Associated Press
ADA, Minn. (November 1, 1997 01:46 a.m. EST

Gurdon Ingberg was among the first to die. He had survived the great flood - by all accounts, he never even got his feet wet - but was dead two weeks later, his spirit utterly broken. More residents of the John Wimmer Nursing Home would follow, their health rapidly deteriorating after they fled rising floodwaters one frenzied April night. Seven months later, 15 of the 47 evacuated residents are dead, a mortality rate nursing home officials call unprecedented. Typically, barring a flu epidemic, two or three residents among that number might die in a six- or seven-month period, they say. Fifteen is unheard of. The flood that killed not a single soul in little Ada is now being blamed for taking some of its most helpless seniors. "I think he just decided he'd had enough," Richard Ingberg said of his 74-year-old brother. "The whole thing was just not very pleasant for him." "I truly believe he died of a broken heart," concurred Brenda Wagner, the nursing home activities director. "He always was so happy. It just changed when he had to move."

When icy floodwaters began threatening Ada in early April, the nursing home was forced to empty its beds, sending confused and startled residents to five other nursing homes spread around western Minnesota. The closest was 15 miles away, the farthest 60 miles. The stress of being uprooted in the middle of the night and deposited in unfamiliar places far from their families has simply been too much for many of the old people, already weakened by age and disease, said Charlie Hicks, director of nursing at John Wimmer. Officially, most of the 15 deaths are due to natural causes and age-related illnesses. But Hicks said stress, loneliness and despair have been the real killers. "There's never been a question of the quality of care they're getting" at their new nursing homes, he said. "It's a question of whether their spirit has been taken away. I think for many it has, and it was the last straw for a lot of them." Things are grim for many of the survivors, too. They remain refugees of sorts, with the John Wimmer home in ruins, still awaiting the wrecking ball, and construction of new buildings more than a year in the offing.

Many of those still living have slipped into deep depression since the flood, Hicks said. They have withdrawn, lost weight and suffered one ailment after another. Albin Stene, 79, no longer even asks his wife when he can return. Hearing his question over and over used to sadden Marjorie Stene. Not hearing it at all tears at her soul. "He really doesn't care anymore," she said from her Ada home, 35 miles from her husband's bedside in Fertile, the nearest nursing home officials could find for Stene. "He just wants to be done with it all." Stene had been at John Wimmer since suffering a stroke in 1995. Before the flood, he'd been in fairly good shape. But since moving to Fertile, he's become despondent and was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer and pneumonia. Mrs. Stene visits him three times a week but said her husband of 51 years "isn't really there anymore." Richard Ingberg said his brother, who was born with cerebral palsy, had a few minor health problems before moving but seemed to give up any will to live after being moved to an unfamiliar place.

Barbara Kramer, coordinator of the Disaster Outreach Center in Grand Forks, N.D., said elderly people, wherever they live, have had a particularly difficult time recovering from the disastrous spring floods in North Dakota and Minnesota. Financially, they're often without the resources to rebuild their homes or their lives, Kramer said. Their families may be hundreds of miles away and unable to help, giving the elderly a true sense of isolation, she added. "They have fewer resources, certainly less energy, to fight this whole thing," she said. "And financially they are the most vulnerable." The elderly also are frequently set in their ways. Even minor changes in routine can upset them emotionally and physically, Kramer said. "Most of these people do not need professional psychiatric care," she said. "They need someone to visit with them, sit down and have coffee with them once in a while."

Lately, she said, her staff have been getting a lot of calls from elderly residents. "We're going out quite a bit just to check on them and say, 'We remember you, we're still here for you if you need someone to talk with."' Wagner, the activities director, travels to each of the five nursing homes every week to check on her charges, many of them longtime Ada residents who still have family in town. Most are slowly adapting to their new surroundings, she said, but still ask constantly when they can come back to Ada. It is a tough question to answer. The new home isn't expected to be completed for at least 18 months -- a lifetime for many of the residents. The nursing home held a residents' reunion last month, bringing the survivors together one day in Fertile. "It was a real healing event for a lot of them," Hicks said. "It lifted their spirits just to see some familiar faces."