COMMENTARY: I’m an older adult. How can I help after a disaster?

In the era in which I grew up (the 1960s and 1970s), women like me felt like we had to show that we were as strong and robust as anyone else. We weren’t going to let gender stereotypes slow us down, if we could help it. Some of us actually could match some men’s physical prowess; some of us tried really hard.

But for both genders, the reality of aging slows all of us a bit. Decades of hard work have taken their toll on our bodies. We may not have the muscles or the stamina we once had. Our energy may flag sooner than we’d like.

That doesn’t mean older adults have nothing to offer as our community works to recover from last week’s devastating rash of tornadoes. In fact, our slower-but-steady pace (think “The Hare & the Tortoise”) may be an important asset in the coming months, after the frenetic first days of clearing debris.

For the short term, we can:

Help sort donations at the many centers which have been inundated with bags and boxes of cleaning supplies, toiletries, clothing and food. Earlier this week, Corinthian Baptist Church in Dayton received literally tons of donations, just as hundreds of area residents were coming in, seeking help. It's a challenge to receive goods at the same time you're distributing them, so a little help with organizing and sorting is greatly appreciated.

Raise money for the Greater Dayton Area Disaster Relief Fund, the Red Cross, or one of the local houses of worship that stepped up to house people displaced by the disaster. Call your friends, write emails, hold an event – just make sure you contact your chosen group first and keep good records so that everyone knows their money is being put to its intended good use.

Make food. Fresh and hot meals are a godsend for displaced families, volunteers and workers trying to make our community right again. Keeping making it. This cleanup will not be done in a week.

Check in with your friends and neighbors, especially those in hard-hit areas. Can you pick something up from the store for them, run an errand? Can you offer an afternoon of child care so parents can get back to their devastated home, to try to salvage some pieces of their life? Can you foster their pet for a couple of weeks, since not all shelters and hotels accept them?

Invite to dinner a family that has been spending every waking hour trying to repair their home and recover their lives. They could use the break. And the company.

All of those efforts will actually help in the long-term, to do what really matters: help rebuild community. Not community in the sense of the buildings and infrastructure; we’ll leave that to the insurance companies and the professionals. But community in the way we’ve seen it emerge over the past few days – people stepping up to offer a helping hand, sharing what they have to give, expressing concern for others who make up our diverse, complicated and historic region.

Building community means reaching out to acknowledge that we’re all in this together. We certainly saw that Memorial Day, when tornadoes racked neighborhoods as different as Trotwood and Beavercreek or Brookville and Northridge. A devastated home is the same, whether it was grand or humble, rented or owned. The occupants had their world turned upside down and the recovery will take time.

Those of us who’ve seen more than a few turns around the sun can help in that recovery, by reaching out, working with those around us, rebuilding an even better, more resilient community.

Noreen Willhelm is senior fellow at the Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative.