All types of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, dangerous heat waves — pose substantial risks to older adults. Yet, not enough seniors prepare in advance for these events, and efforts to encourage them to do so have largely failed.
The most recent egregious example was Hurricane Ian, a massive storm that battered Florida’s southwest coast — a haven for retirees — in September with winds of 150 mph and storm surges of more than 12 feet in some areas. At least 120 people have died, most of them in Florida. Two-thirds of those who died were 60 or older. Many were reported to have drowned and were found in their homes.
Why haven’t more older adults moved to safer areas as recommended by authorities? Understanding this is critical as the aging population continues to grow and natural disasters become more frequent and severe with climate change.
Even before the storm, there were troubling signs that disaster preparedness was lagging. In an AARP survey of 1,005 Florida residents 45 and older this summer, 67% reported having a natural disaster emergency plan, up from 75% in 2019. The decline was most significant among people with low incomes (less than $50,000) and those who did. Those who own their homes.
Meanwhile, 61% of Florida residents 45 and older said they plan to shelter in place during the next bad storm. In 2019, the comparable figure was 55%.
Johnson said concerns about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation on the budget may have contributed to “a lot of people not being mentally prepared to leave”. More broadly, he faulted disaster preparedness checklists targeting veterans.
In most cases, these resources ask older adults to complete a long list of tasks before a crisis occurs. “Coming out of Ian, it became clear that giving seniors materials with so many steps they had to follow became overwhelming,” Johnson told me. “The checklist isn’t working.”
Items recommended for the elderly include: enough non-perishable food, water, and medicine for several days; 30 days of cash for living expenses; hearing aids and glasses; flashlights and battery operated lamps; spare battery; and first aid supplies.
Additionally, older adults are encouraged to make a list of people who can help them in an emergency, familiarize themselves with evacuation routes, make transportation arrangements, and prepare necessary documents such as wills, powers of attorney, and lists of their medical providers and can compile medicine
Doing all of this is especially challenging for older adults with hearing and vision impairments, cognitive problems, mobility difficulties, and serious chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes.
Seniors without cars, cellphones that broadcast emergency alerts, extra money for lodging, or family members and friends who can help them organize or take them if needed are also at risk, according to Natural Hazards Center Director Lori Peek. and Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“It’s not age alone that makes older people vulnerable to disasters,” he noted. “It’s the intersection of age with other social forces” that affect the poor and people representing racial and ethnic minorities.
This lesson has been painfully learned during the Covid pandemic, which has killed large numbers of frail elders. But it is still not included in disaster preparedness and response.
University of Michigan assistant professor Sue Ann Bell, who studies the health effects of disasters, said that must change. “We need to focus disaster preparedness on this vulnerable population,” he said, noting that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work and that outreach to vulnerable seniors needs to be tailored to their specific circumstances.
Coming up with better strategies to increase the capacity of older adults to cope with disasters should be a national priority, not specific to areas affected by hurricanes, as the lack of preparedness is widespread.
In May 2019, Bell’s colleagues at the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging surveyed 2,256 adults ages 50 to 80 about emergency plans for natural or man-made disasters. Although nearly 3 in 4 respondents said they had experienced such an event, just over half had food and water supplies available, and only 40% said they had talked to family or friends about how they would evacuate if necessary.
Older people who live alone, a growing segment of the aging population, were least likely to be prepared for an emergency.
Older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of cognitive impairment living in their own homes, a larger group than those living in institutions, are of great concern.
When Lindsey Peterson, a research assistant professor at the University of South Florida, interviewed 52 family caregivers in 2021 and 2022, they all said they would never take a loved one with dementia to a disaster shelter. Although Florida has created “special needs” shelters for people with disabilities or medical concerns, they are noisy and cluttered and lack privacy.
Even older adults without dementia are loathe to go to shelters because of these issues and because they don’t want to identify themselves as needing assistance, Peek noted.
Using feedback from her research, Peterson developed a disaster preparedness guide for dementia caregivers in concert with the Alzheimer’s Association this year that presents information in an easy-to-understand format.
“Many caregivers have said to us, ‘Please help us do this but make it easy.’ Every day I wake up and there’s a new crisis,'” Peterson said.
He noted that institutions such as nursing homes for older adults were the focus of disaster planning in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in New Orleans in 2005, which hit the New York City metro area and New Jersey particularly hard. 2012.
Peterson suggests that, now, the field needs to do more to meet the needs of the vast majority of older adults living at home.
What might that include? A report released in July by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and AARP called for older adults and local, state and federal agencies responsible for regular emergency preparedness to be brought together. Together, they can plan to minimize the impact of a disaster 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 older adults at home develop plans to help clients during disasters. And more opportunities for older adults to participate in community-based disaster training should be made available.
Think of it as an age-friendly disaster plan. Until now, the focus has been on individuals taking responsibility for themselves. It is a more communal approach, focusing on building a strong network of community support for older adults in times of crisis.
“We’re all thinking now that communities can’t be age-friendly or dementia-friendly if they’re not disaster-resilient,” said AARP Florida’s Johnson. “And people who have been through Yan, I suspect, will be more cautious going forward, because people are scared straight away.”
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