Why seniors need an age-appropriate disaster plan

September 3, 2019. Kissimmee, Florida. Geraldine Riley is a shelter resident at the St Cloud Senior Center. She and her husband, Patrick Riley, came to the shelter on Sunday to escape the expected high winds and torrential rain of Hurricane Dorian. The shelter at the senior center is for residents of Good Samaritan Retirement Village. It is operated by the Osceola County Health Department, supported by the American Red Cross. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams

Everyone hurts when disaster hits — but for seniors, often beset by physical limitations and medical conditions, the suffering can be especially acute.

September is National Preparedness Month, meant to remind us that the best way to cope with disaster is by planning for it before it happens.

“People who don’t plan ahead will be very uncomfortable during a disaster and some of them may not survive,” says Lynne Miller, regional communications manager for King County Emergency Management.

Lynne Miller, King Co Emergency Management

And while there is plenty of general guidance available about disaster planning, what Miller stresses is the need for customized planning designed for anyone older or disabled. What might help someone young and healthy manage the rough first days after a fire or quake, won’t provide all the help needed for someone bedridden or reliant on a walker.

What does age-appropriate disaster planning look like?

The first step is to be completely honest about your own situation — your personal and medical needs, and any physical limitations. “Think through the details and routines of your everyday life and identify special needs you have,” says Miller, who has spent more than a decade in emergency management.

— If you are a senior, you may feel fit, but could you get out of bed and make it outside your dwelling within two minutes should fire break out in the night? 

— If ordered to evacuate because of severe flooding, how quickly could you assemble your medications and vital papers to take with you?

— Do you have enough food, water and medications to sustain you if an earthquake knocked out electric power, Internet connections and store deliveries, preventing access to needed supplies for a week or more?

— If you rely on trained health care workers or medical treatments such as dialysis, how would you maintain critical care if a disaster knocked out phone lines and shut down roadways?

“Develop a personal support network of family and friends who live close by and neighbors you trust to help you. Make sure they have an extra key to your home.”

Lynne Miller

She describes an assisted living facility where residents have stored basic supplies and are trained to assist one another in a disaster. “They have been taught basic first aid, CPR and how to use a fire extinguisher.” Miller says.

Develop back-up plans if you have specialized medical needs — dialysis, chemotherapy, oxygen — that might be interrupted by a disaster. “Talk to your doctor about what happens if you need regular treatment and can’t get to it,” Miller says.

If you use home health workers or visiting nurses, ask about the homecare agency’s emergency plans. If you use oxygen, do you have extra batteries to keep the device operating, or does your utility offer a back-up plan if the power goes out?

Get a kit. Make a plan. Be informed.

Assemble all vital documents — or at least copies of them— in one place. “If you need to evacuate your home, you want them where you can just grab them and go,” Miller says. Those documents should include the obvious — insurance records, wills and powers of attorney, health insurance cards, birth certificate — but also a list of all the medications you take and when you need to take them.

Build up an extra supply of needed medications should pharmacies be closed following a disaster. Drug plans won’t let you stockpile medications, so Miller suggests refilling each prescription a week before you run out. “That will provide you with a regular surplus of needed medications,” Miller says. 

Keep some small bills cash around, since a power and Internet outage will shut down bank ATM machines and halt credit card purchases.

Keep a whistle close by to summon rescuers. “Your voice may give out, but the whistle will keep sounding,” Miller says. “And don’t forget the needs of household pets when you do your planning.”

March 27, 2014. Carney, Oklahoma. Jim Miller learns how to use the contents of his new disaster preparedness kit from Red Cross Resiliency Specialist Taylor Smith. Red Cross workers distributed 6,000 “H.O.M.E.” preparedness kits to people living in high-risk storm paths. Weather radios, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, a safety whistle, a flash drive for storing important documents like insurance policies and home deeds, a flashlight, and a First Aid kit are all included in the H.O.M.E. kit, which stands for “Helping Oklahomans Manage Emergencies.” Photo by Jason Colston/American Red Cross

Shelter-in-Place When Needed

Even if you don’t have to evacuate, you might have to shelter in place for days without getting supplies from the outside. Build an emergency cache meant to last for at least three days. “I strongly recommend that you have enough for a week or more,” says Miller.

What should go into that emergency cache?

— Water, first — one gallon a day per person. Plus some for a pet.

— Next would be non-perishable food that does not require cooking.

— Include first aid supplies, a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio, hygiene items, and a flashlight for each family member.

“Make sure you have lots of batteries.”

Lynne Miller

Every locale has a designated emergency radio station. In Seattle, it is KIRO 710AM (also home to the Mariner games). Monitor it for disaster updates and emergency messages.

You can also sign up to receive text or voice emergency alerts for your area. Contact your local emergency management office for details.

Red Cross has a series of mobile device apps that will help you know what to do even without cell or internet service. 

Important tips

Finally, Miller warns seniors to beware of post-disaster scams. “These may come in many forms — calls purporting to be from disaster relief agencies, requesting personal information, for instance. “Whatever form they take,” Miller says, “such scams are common and seniors are often targeted.”

Preparing for disasters doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Do what you can, as you can, but get started. If you are prepared for the worst-case scenario — such as an earthquake — you are actually prepared to recover from other emergency situations.

Get more tips and checklists at ready.gov/seniors and makeitthrough.org.

Don’t be scared — be prepared!

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