Do you feel that disasters like blizzards, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other catastrophes are becoming more and more common? Well, you are right. The number of events of more than a billion dollars has been increasing, in large part due to global climate change. And while disasters are traumatic events at any age, older adults are especially at risk, especially those living in isolation at home.
“What we found is that the elderly population is not as prepared as others. They are particularly vulnerable, ”says Natasha Bryant, managing director / senior research associate at the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston, and an expert in preparedness for weather-related disasters. If you have one or two parents in their 70s, 80s or 90s, you will be doing them (and yourself) a huge favor by helping them be more prepared in the event of a disaster. Whether natural or man-made, disasters disrupt everyday life. Electrical power may fail, cell phone towers may not work, water may be polluted, and homes may be evacuated. As a result, routine tasks, such as delivering medicine or visiting the supermarket, are suddenly impossible. And finding a place to live can be an urgent and difficult decision. Issues faced by older people in natural disasters The biggest concerns revolve around older people without internet connection or smartphones or living in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods or facing cognitive decline and physical illness. “Some people are not really connected to any kind of network,” says Victoria Funes, associate state director for AARP Florida. Even older adults who are well prepared can struggle with disasters. See: 2020 brought 22 weather disasters costing $ 1 billion or more and capped the hottest decade on record in Barbara Day, 78, and her 81-year-old husband lives in Lynn Haven, Florida and three years ago, the region was hit by a hurricane. They stayed home, struggled to keep the water out, and were without power for about three weeks. (They had a backup generator, thankfully.) His house is still being repaired. “It was heartbreaking,” says Day. “So devastating to the mind.” Day is the president of the local AARP chapter in North Florida and recommends disaster prevention by attending educational meetings with local emergency management teams. She also has many tips of her own. Day advises seniors to realize that insurance claims will take time to process. And he cautions against doing business with fraudulent contractors who often swarm damaged neighborhoods in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane. Another tip from Day: Sign up for your county’s local emergency management agency’s special needs registry if you need help during disasters with evacuations and shelters because of your physical or mental abilities. The need to connect older adults to community disaster preparedness plans is increasing in importance with the aging of the American population. (The ranks of people 85 and older are projected to nearly triple to 19 million by 2060.) Equally significant is the trend toward aging in the place, jargon for staying home in your 70s, 80s and 90s. many older adults can find themselves socially isolated in communities designed around automobiles, while their families and relatives are dispersed. These residents are often locally invisible until a major disaster harshly reveals their existence. “People go wrong every day. Then we have a weather event, a natural disaster. It signals the way we care for older adults, ”says Debra Saliba, professor of geriatrics and gerontology at UCLA and a senior natural scientist at RAND Health. The emergency response system is best for those who live in group living situations, such as nursing homes, assisted living communities, and continuing care. These facilities generally have emergency plans. That said, the reality is that planning for natural disasters is not always a priority for them, especially during the pandemic. “Disaster planning falls off the radar in the competition for attention and resources,” says Saliba. “They are trying to overcome the day-to-day challenges in congregational settings.” A Biden Initiative That Could Help A possible initiative by the Biden administration could provide additional resources for disaster preparedness across the country. It is considering adding up to $ 10 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) budget to better protect individuals, homes and communities from the severe climatic consequences of climate change. FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which came into existence in 2018, is designed to help communities establish a variety of pre-disaster mitigation strategies. But the Trump administration only invested small sums in the program. Even if FEMA gets additional funding for it, the money would mark a small down payment for the much larger challenge of improving disaster planning and preparedness for seniors. “This is truly a public health challenge,” says Robyn Stone, senior vice president for research at LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services and co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston. “And we know that our public health system really does not support older adults.” Disaster Planning Tips for Family and Friends While policy makers (hopefully) stumble upon ways to better integrate older people into disaster planning, there are several steps that families and friends can take. Top of the list: Discuss the risks with your elderly loved ones and plan in the event of a disaster. The conversation may require several attempts and follow-ups. Look: What is a generational reunion? 3 Reasons You Should Have One “Many times, our parents think that they are perfectly capable of dealing with the situation they have faced many times before,” says Funes. His advice: “Don’t wait. Be persistent. “For example, ask if they have a basic emergency supply kit ready to go in case they need to be evacuated. The kit should include things like medicine, glasses, cell phone charging cables, some money in cash, key documents like insurance policies, as well as important contact numbers. “People often have to leave home in a hurry,” says David Ghilarducci, EMS Medical Director and Santa Cruz County Deputy Public Health Officer in California. “They often don’t have a kit ready. Having the kit ready in advance is very important.” (You can find information on what to put in a kit on the FEMA Ready website.) Other key questions to ask: What is your transportation plan if you have to leave in a hurry? If you rely on medical equipment at home, do you have a backup generator? Where is the closest shelter? Perhaps the most important: How will family members connect with you during a disaster? “A plan to connect with family is important,” says Ghilarducci. “The family will try to get hold of you.” The answers to questions like these aren’t just smart for people who live alone. Those who live in congregational coexistence situations and their families should also be aware of the institution’s emergency preparedness plans. Grill staff for detailed information. There is a great deal of information available for guidance. In addition to FEMA’s Ready.gov site, AARP has its Create the Good site with general and state-specific information, including its Emergency Operation Preparedness Toolkit for planning. The Next Avenue article, Preparing Your Loved Ones for Severe Weather Situations and Emergencies, delves into how to help ensure that the older people in your life are well prepared. More: The Biggest Risks Today’s Retirees Face Emergency services and public health officials also have an important role to play. “The key is to make sure that older adults are well integrated into the community,” says Saliba. “A lot can flow from there.” Chris Farrell is a senior economics contributor to the American Public Media Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is the author of “Purpose and a Paycheck: Finding Meaning, Money, and Happiness in the Second Half of Life” and “Lack of Retirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, the community and the good Life. ” This article has been reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved. More from Next Avenue: