To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Professor Sabine von Mering discusses the impact of the climate crisis on elderly populations

Brandeis professor Sabine von Mering discusses the need for greater support and attention towards the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to elements of the climate crisis, in a CommonWealth journal article titled, “Nobody should be facing the climate crisis alone.” The article cites statistics demonstrating the rising trend of elderly people living alone and lists social ways in which people can be stewards of climate justice through community care and empathy.


The article first notes on the final death toll of the tragic wildfires in Maui, Hawai’i. News officials from Reuters note an emerging pattern from the victims of the wildfire: “Many who perished were over the age of 65,” according to the article. This is one example of the disproportionate adversity that the elderly face that is cited in von Mering’s article. 


von Mering then reflects on the efforts of one local climate activist group she is a part of, called 350 Mass MetroWest, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. From lobbying and protesting with Massachusetts climate activists, to participating in educational efforts to teach others about decarbonization, von Mering realizes that an ultimate outcome of these efforts is creating a close community of friends. “It may not be what brought us to the climate movement initially, but as wildfires, storms and floods are raging around us, we realize that this last aspect is turning out to be the most significant,” she wrote. 


The concern for the lack of community in elderly populations arises from the trend that more senior citizens are living alone. According to a 2020 census, 27% of people living in the U.S. who are over the age of 60 live alone. Since the population of older Americans is steadily growing, and life expectancy is increasing due to medical advancements, von Mering notes that social isolation amongst the elderly will only become a bigger problem in the future. 


von Mering explains one solution to this problem: “What’s needed is a new kind of “neighborhood watch,” where neighbors make deliberate efforts to get to know each other—not just for a friendly wave across the fence or from one door to the next. But getting to know each other to the point where we exchange phone numbers and feel comfortable calling on each other and knowing about the other’s needs. If I know my neighbor does not have family nearby or is in need of insulin, I can be a better neighbor in an emergency.”


Though the elderly are often the most vulnerable populations for heat waves and other climate disasters, people over the age of 65 also comprise the highest percentage of people who do not want to accept the scientific consensus on climate change crises. 

von Mering concludes with the importance of younger generations—grandchildren, children, neighbors—to connect with older populations. “If you don’t have grandparents to talk to, get to know your neighbors! Invite them for tea! Have a street party! And while you’re at it: talk about what you can do—both individually and collectively—to address the climate crisis! Who knows, they might know about a climate activist group near you that you could check out together!”


Sabine von Mering is a Brandeis professor of German and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, as well as a core faculty member in the Environmental Studies program and the Creative Acts for Social Transformation program. Her additional positions and roles include a 2023 Public Voices Fellow on the Climate Crisis with The OpEd Project and a climate activist with 350Mass.

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