On January 16, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan due to high levels of lead in the city’s water supply that occurred after the city switched its source of water from the City of Detroit to the Flint River as a cost savings measure in 2014. In addition to lead, Flint’s water supply has tested positive for fecal matter and disinfectant byproducts.
While much attention has been focused on the impact of the water on Flint’s children, older people have also been harmed. The 50+ population comprises about 30% (nearly 30,000 people) of the city, according to the U.S. Census. Older adults have claimed that drinking Flint’s water has caused them to have health effects such as skin lesions, hair loss, high levels of lead in the blood, vision loss, memory loss, depression and anxiety. Low-income people have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis because residents with higher incomes were able to purchase water from an alternate source, as city water had taken on a brown color and an unappetizing smell after the switch. More than 40% of the city’s population lives in poverty.
Based on my research and a number of meetings I’ve attended regarding the impact of the water crisis on older people, three key areas of need seem to exist:
Limited Water and Water Filters: Households are only able to receive one free package of water bottles at a time. Additionally, each household only receives one water filter (the filters fit on a faucet), leaving additional water sources (e.g. bathroom shower and sink) unfiltered. Furthermore, it is often difficult for older adults to install the filter themselves. When they ask for assistance, they often face long delays. Recent testing also indicates the filters may not have the capacity to make water safe for drinking in neighborhoods with especially high lead levels.
Poor Infrastructure: The existing healthcare infrastructure in Flint is overburdened; there is not significant open medical capacity to test or treat patients. Additionally, Flint’s public transportation system is not well developed, and some families are forced to use public transportation in order to pick up water, which can be burdensome. Although there are volunteers delivering water to vulnerable populations, some older people are afraid to allow volunteers into their home to deliver water or replace filters due to threats of crime and fraud.
Needs of Grandparents: There are many multigenerational households and grandparents raising grandchildren in Flint, and children are most likely to face long-term impact from the lead. Older family members often lack knowledge and resources to help younger family members.
If you are interested in helping those impacted by the water crisis in Flint, the United Way of Genesee County has created the Flint Water Fund, which is raising money to deliver water and filters in the community. Additionally, if you live in the Washington, DC area, I will be teaching a special yoga class at Yoga Heights in Petworth at noon on Saturday, June 18 to raise money for the Flint Water Fund. I will post more information about this event as it becomes available.