When Disaster Strikes: Readiness for Seniors

Published In Caregiver Advice and Resources

In November 2018, the town of Paradise in northern California (population 26,218), known for its physical beauty, friendly residents, prolific fruit crops, and annual Johnny Appleseed Festival, was decimated by the deadliest fire in the state’s history. Nearly 100 people died in the so-called Camp Fire; their average age was 71 — and city officials confirmed what you might surmise: The town’s older residents were most at risk. On the initial list of 103 missing people, 73 of them were 65 years old or older.

Brad Weldon’s experience was typical. As the flames began to threaten his Paradise home, he valiantly tried to fend them off with water from a garden hose. His mother, 89, who is blind, was inside and refused to evacuate. Miraculously, the Weldons and their residence made it through the fire; nearly 6,500 of their nearby neighbors lost their homes — and many of them lost their lives.

Though the town had put an emergency alert system in place to warn residents of such an impending disaster, only about 30 percent of people had signed up for it. And many, like Brad Weldon’s mother, steadfastly vowed they would stay in their homes, no matter what.

In addition to wildfires, which are often set off by humans acting intentionally or  carelessly, disasters causing widespread damage and loss of lives include severe storms and flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, landslides, and mudslides. And all such disasters are on the rise. In 2018, a record 124 were recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And with 73 disasters listings so far in 2019, there is little hope of a slowdown.

In response to this undeniable threat, municipalities, states, and the federal government have recently scrambled to offer programs, policies, and legislation on disaster preparedness. But the reality is that people must still act proactively to get the best protection — especially at-risk seniors.

Being Prepared

Despite the looming probability that disasters will strike, very few people plan for them. But thinking ahead can be life-saving, especially when you wrap your head around the fact that traditional sources of support — police and fire departments, paramedics, ambulance services, and other community response options — may be overloaded or out of commission themselves. To further complicate matters, there may be disruptions in essential electricity, gas, water, telephone, and meal delivery services.

Make a plan. Realistically, family members, friends, and neighbors are the most common sources for help after a widescale disaster strikes. Choose two meeting places — one close to home and another outside your neighborhood — where you can meet and gather if a disaster makes it necessary to leave home. Make the meeting spots known to family members, friends, and neighbors with whom you would want to be in contact. It’s also wise to designate an emergency contact who lives out of the area so is unlikely to be affected by the disastrous condition who can act as sort of a clearinghouse for information if needed.

Create an emergency kit. Experts also say that survival usually becomes most acute and crucial within 72 hours after a disaster occurs, when there is likely to be the most confusion and uncertainty and people are most likely to be denied their usual daily life resources. Heed the call to assemble an emergency kit that contains essential supplies to keep you going for at least three days, and store it in an accessible place, preferably near a door.

A number of companies manufacture and sell emergency supply kits — and snagging one may be a wise step for some people. But such kits contain items you likely already own in duplicate somewhere in your home; they just need to be gathered and stored together in a waterproof, portable container. And commercial kits will not include items you personally consider indispensable.

A basic emergency kit should include:

  • Flashlights — with extra batteries
  • First Aid Kit — including gauze, bandages, disinfectant, scissors, medical gloves
  • Radio — best if it operates with a hand crank; include extra batteries
  • Medicines — both non-prescription and prescription; a doctor may be able to provide samples good for storage
  • Water — at least one gallon per person per day, to be checked and replaced every six months
  • Food — preferably high protein items that need no cooking or preparation and do not perish easily, as well as a can opener
  • Tools — a few basics such as wrenches, screwdrivers, knives, and tape
  • Pet items — food, medicine, toys
  • Clothing — including sturdy shoes, gloves, sweaters and jackets for warmth
  • Hygiene products — towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste, sanitation supplies
  • Personal items — backup eyeglasses, identification, list of essential medications, copies of important documents such as insurance policies, wills, healthcare directives, and other important papers
  • Sleeping gear — blankets and sleeping bags
  • Cash — at least $100 in small bills.

Address Special Needs

In the heat of planning to cover basic needs, don’t forget to address some special ones that may require a bit more work to cover.

If you use medical equipment that requires electricity or get dialysis or other life-sustaining treatments regularly, talk with a doctor about how to use the equipment and treatment alternatives in case of an emergency

If you use assistive devices such as a wheelchair, walker, or cane, practice evacuating while using them and find out how and where to get replacements if they are damaged or destroyed.

If you or someone you know has dementia, make sure identifying information as well as emergency contacts are easy to find. Consider an identification bracelet, watch or other wearable, such as MedicAlert.

If the person with dementia has a smart phone, consider programming it so that first responders can get critical contacts and medical providers on the screen without the need for a passcode. Find instructions online by using search terms “Medical ID iPhone” or “Medical ID Android.” If you may be assisting someone with dementia, be sure to have a recent photo of him or her with you in case the two of you get separated.

Resources for Additional Help

Many organizations offer information and resources to help with disaster preparedness. A few especially helpful to older people include:

  • Medicare’s fact sheet detailing changed options for people in declared disaster areas, “Getting Medical Care & Prescription Drugs in a Disaster of Emergency Area
  • The Humane Society’s portal on Disaster Relief, containing information about how to keep pets safe during a disaster, with specific FAQs on hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires
  • The national public service campaign Ready, covering the ABCs of disasters, from “active shooters” to “wildfires”, offering a wealth of information on how to prepare for, respond to and mitigate emergencies, including specialized guidance for seniors
  • The Administration for Community Living, National Alzheimer’s and Dementia Resource Center, and RTI International’s excellent guide, complete with helpful checklists, “Disaster Planning Toolkit for People Living With Dementia.” downloadable and free
  • Local Red Cross offices, which should be able to identify emergency plans and procedures in your community — including response and evacuation plans and designated shelters for medical special needs.

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