All kinds of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, dangerous heat waves — pose significant risks to older people. Yet too few older people prepare for these events in advance, and efforts to encourage them to do so have been largely unsuccessful.
The most recent horrific example is Hurricane Ian, the massive storm that battered the southwest coast of Florida in September – a paradise for retirees – with winds reaching 150 mph and storm surges exceeding 12 feet in some areas. At least 120 people have died, most in Florida. Of those who died, two-thirds were 60 or older. Many reportedly drowned and were found at home.
Why haven’t more older adults moved to safer areas, as recommended by the authorities? Understanding this is critically important as the elderly population grows and natural disasters become more frequent and intense with climate change.
“I think the story of Hurricane Ian that people will remember is the story of people who didn’t evacuate,” said Jeff Johnson, Florida State Director at AARP.
Even before the storm, there were worrying signs that disaster preparedness was lagging behind. In an AARP survey this summer of 1,005 Florida residents ages 45 and older, 67% said they had an emergency plan for natural disasters, down from 75% in 2019. The declines were the most notable among people with low incomes (less than $50,000 a year) and those who owned their homes.
Meanwhile, 61% of Florida residents age 45 and older said they plan to shelter in place during the next bad storm. In 2019, the comparable figure was 55%.
Johnson said worries about the covid-19 pandemic and the impact of inflation on budgets may have contributed to “a lot of people who were just not mentally prepared to leave”. More broadly, he criticized disaster preparedness checklists that target older people.
Most of the time, these resources tell seniors to complete a long list of tasks before a crisis occurs. “From Ian, what became clear was that giving seniors material with lots of steps to follow ends up being overwhelming,” Johnson told me. “Checklists don’t work.”
Among the items older people are advised to gather: enough non-perishable food, water and medicine for several days; cash for 30 days of living expenses; hearing aids and glasses; flashlights and battery-powered lamps; extra batteries; and first aid supplies.
Beyond that, seniors are encouraged to create a list of people who can help them in an emergency, familiarize themselves with escape routes, arrange transportation, and compile essential documents such as wills, powers of attorney and lists of their medical and drug providers.
Doing all of this is especially difficult for older people with hearing and visual impairments, cognitive problems, mobility difficulties, and serious chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
Elderly people without cars, cell phones that broadcast emergency alerts, extra money for accommodation, or family members and friends who can help organize or accommodate them, if needed, are also at increased risk, according to Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center. and professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“It’s not just age that makes older people vulnerable to disasters,” she noted. “It is the intersection of age with other social forces” that affects people who are poor and represent racial and ethnic minorities.
This lesson was painfully learned during the covid pandemic, which killed huge numbers of vulnerable older people. But this has not yet been integrated into disaster preparedness and response.
Sue Anne Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies the health effects of disasters, said that had to change. “We need to focus disaster preparedness on these vulnerable populations,” she said, adding that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work and that outreach to vulnerable older people needs to be tailored to their particular circumstances.
Developing better strategies to build the capacity of older people to cope with disasters should be a national priority, not a priority specific to hurricane-affected areas, as lack of preparedness is widespread.
In May 2019, Bell colleagues from the National Poll on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan surveyed 2,256 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 about contingency planning for natural or man-made disasters. Although almost 3 in 4 respondents said they had experienced such an event, just over half had a supply of food and water for a week, and only 40% said they had spoken to their family. or to their friends how they would evacuate if necessary.
Those least likely to have prepared for emergencies were older people who live alone, a growing part of the older population.
Of great concern are older people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of cognitive impairment living at home, a larger group than those living in institutions.
When Lindsay Peterson, assistant research professor at the University of South Florida, surveyed 52 family caregivers in 2021 and 2022, all said they would never take a loved one with dementia to a disaster shelter. . Although Florida has created “special” shelters for people with disabilities or health conditions, they are noisy and chaotic and lack privacy.
Even older people without dementia are loath to go to shelters because of these issues and because they don’t want to identify themselves as needing help, Peek noted.
Using feedback from her research, Peterson this year created a disaster preparedness guide for caregivers with dementia in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Association that presents information in an easy-to-understand format.
“A lot of caregivers have said to us, ‘Please help us do this, but make it simple. Every day I wake up and there’s a new seizure,'” Peterson said.
She noted that institutions such as nursing homes have been at the center of disaster planning for the elderly following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Super Hurricane Sandy, which hit the New York metropolitan area and New Jersey particularly hard in 2012.
Now the field must do more to meet the needs of the vast majority of seniors living at home, Peterson suggested.
What could this include? A report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and AARP in July calls for bringing together organizations that serve older adults and local, state and federal agencies responsible for emergency preparedness on a regular basis. Together they could plan to reduce the impact of disasters on seniors.
Separately, a January 2020 report from the American Red Cross and the American Academy of Nursing recommends that home health agencies and other organizations serving seniors at home develop plans to help clients with disaster. And more opportunities for older people to participate in community disaster training should be provided.
Think of it as senior-friendly disaster planning. So far, the focus has been on empowering individuals. It is a more community-based approach, focusing on creating a stronger community support network for seniors in times of crisis.
“We all now believe that communities can’t be elderly or dementia friendly if they’re not resilient to disasters,” said Johnson of AARP Florida. “And anyone who’s crossed Ian, I guess, will be more vigilant in the future, because people got scared.”
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