Table of Contents
- What are the unique concerns for seniors in disaster situations?
- What are the steps to emergency preparedness for seniors?
- What can seniors do to stay safe during a disaster?
- What should seniors do immediately after the disaster passes?
- Recovery in the aftermath: How to make it through
While it’s difficult for anyone at any age to go through a disaster, it’s especially hard on seniors. Recent history shows several cases where seniors were the most counted among victims. In Hurricane Katrina, for example, 70 percent of those who died were older adults—even though they only made up 15 percent of New Orleans’ demographic. In Hurricane Sandy, seniors accounted for half of the victims. For the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, two-thirds of the deceased were older adults. Incident after incident shows the same outcomes: seniors don’t fare well in disaster situations.
But, aging adults have the power to dramatically increase their survival rates and create positive outcomes when catastrophe strikes. Continue reading below to find out what older adults and caregivers need to know and do to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
What are the unique concerns for seniors in disaster situations?
Though not all older age groups fit the mold, many aging citizens share similar characteristics that make them more vulnerable and prone to injury during calamities. These traits include:
As we age, we tend to lose more than just our hair. Hearing and eyesight loss are common issues, and so is a reduced sense of taste and smell. Reduced sensing abilities might be an inconvenience in daily life, but it can be deadly during an emergency.
For instance, seniors may fail to hear important announcements or updates regarding an impending natural disaster. Or poor night vision can make it dangerous to drive at night after an evacuation notice.
Even a reduced sense of taste and smell can cause seniors to eat foods others would have noticed were off. Consuming spoiled foods can result in vomiting and dehydration, which may lead to death in circumstances where food and water supplies are limited.
Typical cognitive and motor-skill declines accompanying aging become a serious problem when seniors need to act and think quickly in dire situations. During the precious extra seconds it takes to leave the house, react to rising water levels, or dodge obstacles, circumstances can go from bad to worse. It can also get in the way of focusing on news broadcasts when hearing conditions are suboptimal.
Expecting and accommodating delayed responses is key. During the Kansas City flood of 1977, disaster recovery centers (DRCs) opened extra hours to cater to affected elders. Over 50 percent of older adults who received services did so outside the regular business hours.
Chronic illnesses like hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, macular degeneration, and more come with their own set of particular concerns that elders need to consider. Conditions like arthritis may make it difficult to stand in line. Medications for hypertension can cause dehydration, weakness, or vertigo, which can negatively impact balance, coordination, and thinking abilities.
On the other hand, memory disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s make elderly adults forget about taking medications or sticking to dietary restrictions. Those with diabetes, for example, may need to take insulin at regular intervals and eat low-sugar food rations. Memory disorders are also tricky because many older adults experience communication problems and are not able to convey issues they are having.
Extreme heat or cold is especially troubling for seniors. People 75 and older are five times more likely to die of hypothermia than someone younger. Even above-freezing temperatures are risky for older adults if they don’t adequately prepare. Florida’s Broward County, for example, declared a one-day state of emergency when in January 2019, temperatures were expected to dip into the low 40s. This was mostly to give seniors and homeless people a chance to prepare.
Heatstroke is also a significant concern during warmer weather, especially when A/Cs don’t work. Hurricane Irma in 2017 left over a third of Florida without power for several days to weeks. With high humidity and temperatures near the 90s during the day and low 80s overnight, Florida was an unbearable sauna. Inside the sweltering heat of a South Florida nursing home, 12 seniors died after indoor temperatures reached 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are the steps to emergency preparedness for seniors?
Significantly increasing the chances of positive outcomes during emergencies and disasters is a matter of proper preparation beforehand. Below are steps older adults and caregivers can take to help aging adults make it safely through crises.
Step 1: Assess risks
Home fires and carbon monoxide poisoning happen anywhere, and everyone should be prepared with smoke and CO detectors. Seniors should also be especially attuned to hazards specific to their community or neighborhood.
States like California are well known for their earthquakes and forest fires, but California also experiences extreme heat waves and mudslides. Tropical storms and hurricanes frequently ravage Florida, but so do tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Other areas like Texas have made the news for an onslaught of natural disasters, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
No matter where you live, know what your dangers are, and take proper precautions to mitigate or reduce risks.
It is equally important to take stock of what medical conditions seniors experience, prescriptions and medical equipment they need, additional medications to store for side effects, dietary considerations, and anything else that might make aging loved ones more vulnerable in a disaster.
Step 2: Design an emergency plan
Know local resources
An emergency disaster plan starts with knowing the community warning systems already in place in a neighborhood. It’s vital to know how authorities will warn the community of impending or current disaster situations, and how they will reach out before, during, and after an emergency.
Older adults should also have emergency numbers of the nearest police and fire department, poison control center, and locksmith. They should also keep numbers for their doctor, nearby hospitals, insurances, and electric company.
Create an emergency plan
Under high-stress situations and disasters, it’s hard to think clearly. Writing out a detailed emergency plan ensures older adults don’t have to make big decisions under limited time and resources. Emergency plans must include:
A communication plan: Emergency contact information should be kept up-to-date and easily accessible. Keep extra copies around the house and in a suitcase, purse, wallet, or travel bag. Group chats and phone call chains—where someone is responsible for calling you, and you are responsible for calling someone else afterward—are also popular options for staying in communication.
Aging adults may also want to consider investing in a medical alert device. Because they’re usually worn around the neck or wrist, they’re easily accessible and can call for help even when phones aren’t nearby. Besides calling medics, medical alert companies commonly call through a list of emergency contacts to let loved ones know your situation.
An evacuation plan: If relatives live nearby, designate a meeting place in case of an evacuation. Choose two spots in the event one is inaccessible, and make sure everyone has the exact address or coordinates of those locations. Caregivers with loved ones in a senior facility should also know where they might be taken if evacuated.
Older adults can also team up with local neighborhood groups like the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), local churches, and community associations so they can receive assistance during community emergencies.
It’s critical seniors familiarize themselves with evacuation routes and at least two paths out of their area. They should practice these regularly and keep maps of evacuation routes, nearby shelters, and local hospitals in the car.
Step 3: Secure your home and possessions
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) says smoke and CO detectors should be checked once a month and have batteries replaced once or twice a year. Homeowners also need to know how to turn off the water, gas, and electricity at their main switch or valve. Any tools required for the job should be kept nearby. These should be turned off only if homeowners suspect there’s damage to the line. For safety, it’s best to have a professional come out and evaluate the line before turning it back on—especially if a gas leak is suspected.
When the power suddenly goes out, seniors can hurt themselves by fumbling around the dark looking for glasses, hearing aids, or cochlear implants. These essential items should always be nearby and accessible. But events like earthquakes can cause everything in the house to shift. If this is a risk in your area, seniors can fasten items like hearing aids in place with velcro.
Copies of the following vital documents should also be kept in a safe location—like a fire-and-water-proof safe or a safe-deposit box: passports, birth and marriage certificates, house deed, social security card, proof of homeowners insurance, and immunizations records.
Step 4: Put together an emergency medical kit
The Mayo Clinic has a checklist for first-aid kits to keep around the house. They include supplies like activated charcoal and elastic wrap bandages. The American Red Cross Association also has a detailed list of recommended items.
An emergency medical kit specifically for seniors should also include:
- An updated list of current medications.
- 7-14 day supply of prescriptions.
- An insulated bag big enough to hold 14 days worth of refrigerated medical supplies. Ice packs should always be kept in the freezer for this purpose.
- Personal medical equipment and essentials like blood sugar monitors and needles, blood pressure cuffs, and extra hearing aid batteries.
- Extra copies of health insurance information and medical records
- Copies of letters from doctors explaining all existing medical problems and treatment plans.
Step 5: Stock disaster supplies
Red Cross also explains how to build an adequate disaster supply kit. Remember to store canned food in a cool, dry place and boxed foods in a plastic or metal container. If flooding is a possibility, seniors should consider waterproof plastic bins for food storage.
Ready.gov provides an emergency supply kit checklist for the car. These kits can be life-saving if seniors are left stranded because their car broke down or ran out of gas during an evacuation.
Step 6: Always be prepared
Always being prepared means going through steps one through five every six months to review emergency plans with family and friends, check and replace expired items in first-aid kits and disaster supplies, and practice evacuation routes and procedures so they become second nature.
At least once a year, older adults should change the batteries on all critical devices, like smoke alarms and CO detectors, at the same time.
What can seniors do to stay safe during a disaster?
Aging adults should frequently listen to television and radio messages from news outlets and local authorities to stay current on what’s happening in the area. Hand-crank or battery-operated radios can be used in power outages.
Seniors should also try to make their homes as safe as they can until the emergency is over. This includes preparing to be alone or making arrangements to travel to an unaffected area. Older adults must remember that power outages mean central heat or A/C systems won’t work and that their age makes them more vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures.
All residents should obey evacuation orders by going to a shelter or a relative’s home that isn’t in the path of danger. Evacuation orders are given when there’s a real risk of catastrophe in the area. If the worse does happen, those areas may be inaccessible to EMTs, police, and firefighters.
What should seniors do immediately after the disaster passes?
- If driving on the road, avoid driving through flooded roads or approaching downed power lines.
- In case there’s a gas leak, don’t light matches or check for damages in the home using a candle, but do look for fires, chemical spills, electrical damage, or gas leaks with a flashlight.
- Call loved ones to let them know you’re safe.
- Keep monitoring the news for information on disaster relief assistance.
- If electrical power is lost, only open refrigerator and freezer doors when necessary.
- Unplug all electrical devices to avoid surge damage when the power comes back on. Avoid using candles to light a room because they’re a fire hazard. Only use flashlights or battery-operated lanterns.
- Operate portable generators outdoors and in well-ventilated areas. Be sure to wait until the generator has cooled to refuel.
Unfortunately, during times of disaster, some people prey on the vulnerable. Don’t become a victim of a scam or be financially exploited. If your home needs repairs, don’t give a deposit to a company before thoroughly reading the contract and both parties have signed. Also, be sure not to give any sensitive information over the phone like credit card or account numbers to people who claim to be a government agency or other organization. Say no to repair services without a written contract, high-pressure sales tactics, and providing sensitive financial information like account or credit card numbers. Visit the FTC’s website for more information on avoiding scams.
Recovery in the aftermath: How to make it through
Disasters are a stressful and traumatizing experience, especially for those severely affected. Even if seniors are well prepared before a disaster and do everything right during and after the emergency, it’s still a trying experience.
It’s not uncommon for people to become depressed, anxious, angry, sad, confused, disoriented, or more. It’s okay to seek help to work through these feelings and traumas. Family and friends are a great source of support, as are mental health services. Seniors should allow proper time for grieving and processing without the pressure of a recovery deadline because everyone deals with disaster trauma at their own pace.
Spring will come again
Seniors who properly prepare for disasters long before they happen give themselves the best chances of making it through unscathed. Regardless, a disaster or emergency can still be difficult to process for those who were affected. With time, support, and healing, seniors will find that brighter and more joyful days are ahead.