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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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“Get into the Act” for Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

Author: Cheryl Levine, Ph.D., Team Lead, and Sulava Gautam, MPP, Program Analyst, At-Risk Individuals, Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health, and Community Resilience (ABC), Office of Policy and Planning (OPP), Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)
Published Date: 5/27/2015 12:20:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery;

When a disaster strikes, individuals and communities feel the impact – but they don’t all feel it the same way. Disasters can be particularly hard for older adults and can make existing health conditions, from diabetes to dementia, harder to manage. On the other hand, older adults may also have long-lasting friendships, experience and skills that they can use to help themselves and their communities.

Older Americans are important parts of communities across the country. In fact, there will be about 72.1 million older people living in the United States by 2030-- more than twice the number of older adults at the beginning of this century. As Older Americans Month comes to a close, it is a great time to reflect on this year’s theme and “get into the act.” As individuals, older Americans can take the critical steps needed to plan for their health needs in a disaster and stay safe. As a caregivers, public health or medical professionals, and as a community, we can focus on better planning for the needs of older Americans so that we are ready when disaster strikes.

Disasters pose special challenges to many older Americans and their caregivers. Chronic conditions that exist prior to an emergency can be exacerbated, equipment damaged or lost, and services or treatments interrupted. These challenges can result in additional harm or stress, particularly for older adults residing in long-term care facilities or nursing homes.

According to 2012 study titled The Effects of Evacuation on Nursing Home Residents with Dementia, residents faced increased risk for adverse outcomes (e.g., morbidity, mortality, and hospitalization) due to health conditions made worse by disaster-related activities such as evacuation and distribution of daily routines. The study also found that residents with severe cognitive impairment who are evacuated were at increased risk of death even at 30 and 90 days post-evacuation. This research illustrates the need to develop policies, programs, and trainings for long-term care providers, clinicians, public health officials, and emergency responders to better prepare for and respond to the specific needs of older adults in these communities.

Also published in 2012, a report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reinforces the need for tailored preparedness plans for residents of nursing homes. The nationwide study found that while most nursing homes met Federal requirements for written emergency plans and preparedness training, there are still many gaps. These gaps included emergency plans lacking relevant information and the lack of collaboration between nursing homes and local emergency management.

A whole community approach to disaster and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery activities requires integrating the access and functional needs of everyone, including older adults living independently in the community and those living in supportive long-term care settings. By utilizing this approach, public health officials and emergency managers can effectively meet the needs of the older adults, wherever they might live, by engaging and coordinating with key stakeholders such as local Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers, volunteer organizations, retirement communities, home health associations, and long-term care providers.

For more information on preparedness planning for older adults, check out the following resources:

This year’s theme for Older Americans Month, “Get into the Act,” also serves as a strong reminder that many older adults can be assets in times of a disaster or emergency. Drawing from their prior experience, expertise, and mental resilience, many older adults have the capacity to survive and help others. They are important parts of our communities and many of them volunteer with organizations like the Medical Reserve Corps to help their communities become more resilient.

Successful disaster preparedness requires both building on the resilience of older adults and developing and maintaining local planning and coordination efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of older adults during times of disaster. By planning and working together as a community, we can better protect health and save lives during disasters and every day.

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