The Forgotten People: Puerto Rico’s Elderly and Disabled After Hurricane Maria

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During my time as a student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistant Clinic, I have been fortunate enough to be able to go on a few of what we call “humanitarian brigades.” During these brigades, we go into some of the more impoverished communities that have been impacted by Hurricane Maria. The communities of Arroyo and Maunabo that I visited are still dealing with the loss of power four months later, and some houses are still without water. When we go on these brigades our goal is simple: bring some essential goods and solar lamps directly to people’s homes. Though through the course of the brigades I have been invited into many homes and discovered a population that has been forgotten by much of society… the elderly and disabled.

The hurricane has created hardships in every community, with the loss of homes, electricity, water, and lives. The one population that has been struggling more than others on the road to recovery are the elderly and disabled. These individuals were having difficulties caring for themselves before the disaster, and now months later have to continue that struggle through conditions of high temperatures, darkness and filth. I have met some amazing people who are doing all they can to care for elderly and disabled friends and neighbors unable to care for themselves either physically or financially. These self-assumed caregivers have kept this population alive, but with such high poverty in the communities, caring for others can come at a cost to oneself. Our community liaisons during the brigades have been wonderful in pointing out the elderly and disabled within a community who have the highest level of need, but we can only provide so much. The problem of appropriate care will be an ongoing issue.

The humanitarian work we have done has been truly rewarding, and an emotional rollercoaster at times. There was one visit in particular where an elderly woman was bedridden and being taken care of by her neighbor. We provided a solar lamp, soap, adult diapers and baby wipes, but it was the sight of a towel that made the caregiver instantly start crying. We rushed to grab some more towels for them, and while these towels were exactly what they needed, she kept crying because she was amazed that we cared. It is so easy during this work to have a sense of guilt or helplessness because we want to do so much more for these people, but in that moment I knew that we had done good by showing the communities that we cared, and showing the elderly and disabled that they were not forgotten.

The #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has provided student attorneys with a unique opportunity to speak directly to the individuals impacted and discover the needs they have that aren’t being identified. We have heard stories of people being found sick and alone in their beds because their caregivers left the island, and people dying on hospital steps because they were unable to make it there before the hospital closed. These stories describe a larger issue of how people care for the elderly and disabled when they are barely able to care for themselves. The Puerto Ricans I have met who are caring for them are giving all they can, but they shouldn’t have to. There needs to be a way for the communities and government to respond to these particular needs, so that this population receives appropriate care again, and people stop dying due to hurricane-related issues.

#UBLawResponds has been fortunate enough to receive donations, which have made providing the goods during the humanitarian brigades possible. We are always looking to provide more humanitarian support, which requires more resources, so I ask that you consider donating  to directly impact the people we serve. If you are unable to donate, then I would ask that you take some time to consider the people in your own life that might need support, and see how you can serve in your own communities.