Seniors are More Vulnerable, But Less Prepared, During Emergencies

Don't Wait. Communicate. Make a family emergency plan today. September is National Preparedness Month.

Photo: Jana Baldwin, FEMA

September is National Preparedness Month

Natural disasters and other emergencies can hit older adults especially hard. This fact was graphically brought home during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when heartbreaking news footage showed elderly people trapped in their homes, sweltering in the Superdome, and perishing in a flooded nursing home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that although only 15 percent of the population of New Orleans was older than age 60, more than 70 percent of people who died were seniors.

Katrina was a turning point, say experts. It spurred the federal, state and local governments to focus more on disaster planning for seniors with disabilities. We have a long way to go—the disproportionate deaths of seniors during more recent hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and epidemics since then have made that plain. It’s vital that families and the aging services network partner to protect vulnerable elders who are living with impaired mobility, vision or hearing loss, chronic health conditions or dementia. If you have older loved ones with disabilities and chronic illness, here are things to consider today:

What disasters might strike where my loved one lives?

Certain areas are more vulnerable to certain disasters. “Tornado Alley” is where twisters are most likely to wreak havoc. Our western states are most prone to wildfires, and of course, the West Coasters are encouraged to prepare for “The Big One”—a huge earthquake and maybe a tsunami, predicted to hit someday. Floods happen almost everywhere, as do extreme cold and heat. Manmade disasters, such as power outages, big technology failures or acts of war, can strike anywhere. Disease epidemics hit seniors hardest. Anything that interrupts the services that protect your loved one’s health can be a dangerous emergency. The theme of this year’s National Preparedness Month is “Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can,” which reminds us that while we might get advance warning of a flood, tornado or tsunami, for the most part, we don’t get a heads up—so it’s important to prepare ahead of time.

What should my loved one have in the home to be safe?

When disasters strike, we are sometimes advised to shelter at home. Sooner rather than later, help your loved one create an emergency supply kit. Emergency supplies for everyone include a flashlight, blanket or sleeping bag, enough food and water for three days, and a backpack to use in case of evacuation. Use this free checklist from FEMA as you create your kit. Note that people with disabilities may also need to have an adequate supply of their medications and special foods. If your loved one uses medical equipment or a power wheelchair, have extra batteries or a home generator in case of a power outage.

If your loved one has a service animal or other pet, be sure to have a supply of pet food and water. Studies show that many seniors refuse to evacuate if they can’t bring along their pet, so learn about options—a pet-friendly shelter, hotel, or home of a friend. The CDC offers emergency preparation information for pets.

Who can help?

In the event of an emergency, your loved one will need assistance to be safe at home or during evacuation. The CDC reports that during Hurricane Katrina, many seniors were stranded in their homes because they had no way to evacuate. Even if your loved one lives with you or nearby, it’s possible you would be unable to get to them in the event of an emergency. Enlist the help of neighbors, if possible. Let them know about your plan.

Well before an emergency strikes, talk to emergency services personnel in your loved one’s area. Ask about the community’s emergency preparation plan for people with disabilities. These days, more communities have designated shelters for people with special needs, featuring generator power for medical equipment, appropriate sleeping facilities for seniors (rather than on the floor), and perhaps medical personnel on-site. Find out which shelter your loved one should go to, and call ahead to find out their requirements. Does your loved one need to register ahead of time? Must your loved one be accompanied by a caregiver? What should your loved one bring? Are pets allowed?

What if my loved one lives in a nursing home or other senior living community?

Regulations vary among service providers and states, so it’s good to have a conversation ahead of time to be sure your loved one will be safe. Ask the facility about their plans for sheltering in place or evacuating. Be sure they have a contact information for you. If your family uses home care to keep your loved one safe and well cared for, talk to the agency about their emergency policies.

What special plans should I make if my loved one has Alzheimer’s or other dementia?

People with memory loss are especially vulnerable during emergencies. If your loved one lives at home, adding some extras to their emergency supply kit is important, such as incontinence undergarments and comfort objects. Talk to neighbors about your loved one’s condition and your safety plan. If you must evacuate the home with your loved one, keeping them as calm as possible and preventing wandering are priorities. Be sure your loved one is wearing an identification bracelet or tag. The National Institute on Aging offers more information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

What about me?

Many family caregivers today are of an age when traditionally, they might have been receiving care themselves! The CDC points out, “Not all older adults are more vulnerable to ill effects from a disaster than younger people are. In many cases, older adults have the life experience, wisdom, and mental resilience to survive, help others, and reassure people who are frightened or depressed by the events.” But if you do have health issues, be sure to plan for your own well-being as much as for your loved one.

What should I do when the disaster is over?

It’s important to know that seniors may continue to be negatively impacted even when the disaster has passed. The stress and conditions they experienced—heat, cold, fear, interruption in their medical care and disruption of their routine—can worsen chronic diseases. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health recently released a study of elderly survivors of the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan, noting that those who were uprooted from their homes, even temporarily, had a higher risk of cognitive decline. The CDC concurs that older adults are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a disaster.

Seniors also may have more trouble accessing disaster assistance programs, such as those run by FEMA and the Red Cross. Worse, con artists may target them, with everything from home repair scams to fraudulent charities. It’s so important to continue to support your loved one during this time.

Convinced? Start the conversation and planning now. Here are some resources that can help:

Click on the photo at right to access FEMA Disability Resources

FEMA and the Red Cross partnered to create the booklet Preparing for People with Disabilities and Other Special Needs.

Also see information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.