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When and how to help older people during and after disasters

Author: Cheryl A. Levine, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst & Team Lead for At-Risk Individuals, ASPR’s Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health & Community Resilience
Published Date: 6/27/2017 1:39:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery;

Older people benefit from a lifetime of knowledge and experience that builds skills for coping with adversity and improves their ability to bounce back from disasters, also known as individual resilience. While many older people want to - and can - handle the challenges that arise from disasters on their own, their friends, loved ones, and even neighbors need to know when the older adults in their lives need a helping hand.

For those who live independently in the community, a little bit of assistance can help an older person maintain their independence following a disaster. Issues that were minor challenges before a disaster can contribute to serious health threats in the wake of a storm.

Many older people are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions and to rely on daily prescription medications. Before a disaster strikes, encourage older adults to talk to their doctors and learn about how a disaster may change the way their medications work, what to do in a power outage if they rely on refrigerated medications, and what side effects could become more severe or dangerous in a disaster. For example, some medications can cause mental confusion or a greater susceptibility to problems such as dehydration. Remind older adults to keep a three-day supply of medications on hand, just in case.

If you are helping an older adult evacuate or to plan to evacuate, make sure that they have all of their medicines with them and have information written down about any special dietary requirements. Older people should maintain a list of emergency contacts including their healthcare provider’s contact information as well as a list of all their mediations.

Most of us know that we need to listen to state and local officials and the news during and after a disaster – but accessing disaster-related information can be challenging for older adults with hearing, visual, or cognitive impairments. Make sure that older people maintain access to their assistive devices (glasses, hearing aids and batteries, dentures/partials, etc.). Additionally, cultural background, language, and literacy level can affect an older person’s ability to get, understand, and act on emergency information. If you think that an older adult in your community may have trouble understanding information, reach out and try to help them understand the situation.

Many of the hazards that cause older adults to get sick or injured may change or become more common during and after disasters – just when emergency responders are being inundated with calls for help. In disasters where relocation or evacuation becomes necessary, some older people in shelters or new surroundings may be at an increased risk for falls due to clutter or poor lighting. This risk could be greater if they suffer from balance problems, muscle weakness or side-effects from some medications. When helping an older person adjust to a new setting, conduct a fall prevention assessment of the living quarters to make sure that they are safe. Talk to shelter staff about removing or mitigating hazards; check that stairs and hallways are well-lit, and ensure that older adults with mobility limitations maintain their access to their mobility aids (wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc.).

Evacuating during a disaster can be stressful and disruption of daily routines can be difficult. For older people, their home and possessions may represent a lifetime of cherished memories. To help older adults cope with the stress of evacuation, provide reassurance and help them re-establish contact with friends and family who can help them cope. Older people may need direct assistance to recover physical possessions, find a suitable place to relocate, access medical and financial services, as well as transportation services for doctor’s visits or grocery shopping.

Dementia can be a common problem for older people. At age 60, only 15 percent of the older population has dementia; however, by age 85, half of the older population is affected by dementia. At night, older people with mild or moderate dementia or problems thinking clearly can become confused about where they are if they are in a new environment. Having someone familiar, such as a family member or caregiver, accompany an older person can help them adjust to a new environment.

One of the stressors older people face is worrying about losing the ability to live independently due to a disaster-related injury or the loss of their home. While doing your best to keep them safe, you can respect their concern by allowing them to do what they can for themselves and to maintain as much independence as possible.

Older people have experienced a lot during their lifetimes and while they may not request the help they need from others in a disaster, understanding some of the needs that may interfere with their ability to access or received medical care before, during, or after a disaster or emergency can protect their health when they it the most.

Older people also can contribute to disaster recovery, helping their families and communities. Their decades of knowledge and experience contribute to individual resiliency for coping with adversity. Older people may have great coping skills, and they might also be able to provide practical and emotional support to the people in their communities.

None of us are mind readers. Knowing when and how to help older adults in a disaster starts with a conversation. Think about your friends, family members and neighbors. Who can you start a conversation with today so you are ready to help them make it through the next storm?


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