August 18, 2016. Denham Springs, Louisiana. Tears fill Fonda’s eyes as she ran, arms opens, from her flooded Louisiana home. Her first request? “I want a hug,” says Fonda Buckley as she embraces Red Cross volunteer Cora Lee. Photo by: Marko Kokic/American Red Cross

By Gordon Williams 

Among the lessons seniors can take away from the Covid pandemic, this could be the most important: When disaster strikes, isolation can be deadly. Older people who fared best during the outbreak were those with strong networks of friends and family who were there to help when help was needed. That’s good information to know if you are a senior, care for a senior or have seniors as friends and neighbors. 

Debbie Crosby of the American Red Cross Northwest Region (Washington and northern Idaho), saw the dangers of isolation close-up. Crosby is the adult preparedness lead for the region. “During the pandemic,” she says, “people who were isolated became very depressed. In some cases they stopped eating and lost weight. They had absolutely no quality of life.” 

Nor is the value of a support network limited to times of medical emergency. Helping hands are welcome during any disaster, from house fires to floods. You don’t even have to be a senior to benefit from having help close by. Disasters can overwhelm you no matter how old or fit you are.  

A report by the Red Cross recommends that “senior citizens create a personal support network made up of several individuals who will check in on you in an emergency to ensure your wellness and to give assistance if needed.” As to who might need assistance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that more than half of older adults have a physical limitation that would hamper their ability to reach safety in a disaster. 

Without outside aid, those using wheelchairs, canes or walkers could be trapped if elevators stopped working because of a power outage. Many seniors would need help if the disaster subjected them to extreme temperatures or toxic smoke. Those with hearing loss might not hear evacuation orders unless they were echoed by someone close by.  

Just having someone make sure you have all your medications — and take them on schedule —could make a huge difference in how well you manage an emergency. The CDC report warns, “If people who are evacuated do not have the medications that have kept their heart disease, diabetes or breathing problems stable within three days, their conditions could require emergency management.” 

So who do you enlist for your support network? The Red Cross guide to Disaster Preparedness Information for Seniors offers this advice: “This network can consist of friends, roommates, family members, relatives, personal attendants, coworkers and neighbors. Ideally a minimum of three people at each location where you regularly spend time — for example at work, home, school or volunteer site.” 

The first place to look when staffing your support group is among your neighbors — people living close by who can monitor your well-being on a regular basis and rush to your assistance in an emergency. “Get to know the people around you,” Crosby says. “Build relationships of trust with neighbors who can help you and who you can help.” If you are not likely to need help in a crisis, be the good neighbor who comes to the aid of others. 

If you live in the country with few neighbors close by, seek out support from members of your church or fraternal or service groups you belong to. Every county in Washington has a department of aging that may offer useful advice about building a support group. Make sure local responders — fire, police and medical — are aware of special needs they should know about in coming to your assistance. Would you need help escaping your home in a fire? Do you have hearing issues that would keep you from hearing shouted commands from rescuers?  

Once you have the pieces of a support network, put the finishing touches in place by hashing out how the network would work. Which neighbors have special skills that might prove useful during a disaster? What skills do you have that might benefit others when disaster hits?  

The Red Cross offers these seven suggestions on how to make your network function: 

  1. Make arrangements, prior to an emergency, for your support network to immediately check on you after a disaster and, if needed, offer assistance.
  2. Exchange important keys. 
  3. Show them where you keep emergency supplies.
  4. Share copies of your relevant emergency documents, evacuation plans and emergency health information card.
  5. Agree on and practice methods for contacting each other in an emergency. Do not count on the telephones working. 
  6. You and your personal support network should always notify each other when you are going out of town and when you will return.  
  7. The relationship should be mutual. Learn about each other’s needs and how to help each other in an emergency. You might take responsibility for food supplies and preparation, organizing neighborhood watch meetings and interpreting. 

Finally, consider building your network by volunteering in your community. That’s another way the Red Cross can help. Visit our website and take a quick survey to find what opportunity might appeal to you best.

We’re all in this together.

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