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How to Create Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Plans for Your Loved Ones

Decide on a strategy now — before foul weather strikes

spinner image Adult woman sitting with her parents at the kitchen table discussing their plans in case of an emergency
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No one wants to think about a natural disaster striking the area where an older loved one lives, but creating an emergency plan so you’re ready before a tragedy happens is wise.

Fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters can happen any time of year. Given the increasing frequency and severity of intense weather and other so-called natural disasters, it may not be a case of if, but of when.

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“The three steps to preparedness … include making a plan, making a kit and being informed,” says Lauren Kraemer, an associate professor of practice in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University Extension Service who gives seminars on disaster preparation and aging. “Those are kind of three main pointers if I were to distill lots and lots of information down to three things that hopefully you’ll remember.”

Your loved one probably has no plan yet

Don’t assume someone else has established a disaster plan. A 2023 AARP survey of adults 50 and older found that while 60 percent said they felt prepared for a natural disaster, few had taken steps to get ready. About 1 in 3 do not have extra prescription medicine, almost half don’t have emergency phone chargers, only 12 percent follow local authorities on social media and only a handful have made copies of important documents for a bag they can grab if they must leave home nor placed them securely in the cloud for access from anywhere they can find Wi-Fi.

While most public health departments have conducted disaster preparedness programs, these aren’t necessarily designed to address the needs and challenges of older adults, Kraemer says. Yet, older adults are especially vulnerable during and after disasters because of chronic health conditions, mobility challenges and slower reaction times.

“Take preparatory steps in [nonemergency] times so that when an emergency does occur, there’s a plan in place for what older adults and family caregivers should do,” says Andrew B. Crocker, a gerontology and health specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service in Amarillo. Here are key steps to take, depending on where your loved one lives:

Have a plan to evacuate from home

Urge your loved one to keep the car gassed up — if he or she is still driving — and keep first aid kits and easy-to-hold battery-operated lanterns in easy-to-remember places. You’ll also want to:

Make a list of local contacts. Friends, neighbors, faith leaders and other close acquaintances can check on your loved one or give emergency caregiver assistance. You’ll want to figure out how they will stay in touch with you during an emergency.

A paper checklist can help

AARP’s Create the Good initiative, which connects potential volunteers with opportunities, has printable guides in English and Spanish to walk you through all the steps necessary to prepare for an emergency.

Exchange phone numbers and email addresses with these folks. Enter the information in both your own and your loved one’s phone.

“I do recommend writing down ... numbers,” Kraemer says. “One, memory fails us pretty easily when we’re stressed out and anxious. And two, if we don’t have our cellphone all the way charged up, we’re not going to be able to access those numbers. In a perfect world, we’d have them written down in a couple of places.”

These local contacts can be vital to reach out to for help if police departments are inundated with calls during a disaster.

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Plan an evacuation route. Determine how your loved one can leave home safely, where to go and what the best route is, including a plan for transportation to get there. This is especially important in an area susceptible to hurricanes and other damaging storms.

Find safe shelter at home. Figure out the safest way for your loved one to shelter in place during sudden extreme weather such as a tornado. Practice the evacuation or shelter-in-place drill with your loved one every six months.

Create a portable emergency supply kit. Find one that your loved one can carry or roll easily. It should include nonperishable food and water; at least a three-day supply of medications; medical devices such as hearing aids and batteries, glasses or contacts; a flashlight and batteries; personal hygiene items; and cellphone backup battery packs, portable chargers and car chargers.

Review the contents every three to six months to make sure supplies are up-to-date and charged. Replace items that have expired and add new ones as needed.

Copy important documents. Place these papers in a waterproof bag or fireproof box for safekeeping. Also make digital copies that you email to yourself or store in the cloud.

Financial documents should include a copy of your loved one’s medical insurance card, a photo ID, power of attorney documents, Social Security card and statements for accounts. Medical information should include a list of allergies and health conditions; a list of medications including dosage, time of day and who prescribed them; and contact information for caregivers, doctors and family members. Keep the bag in a memorable place and remind your loved one to grab it before evacuating.

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Listen to local authorities. Urge your loved one to tune in to the radio, TV or social media for advice about whether to evacuate or remain in place. Buy a portable radio and ensure fresh batteries are kept nearby, so anyone nearby can stay abreast of news even if the electricity goes out.

Make becoming familiar with technology a priority so your loved one can read emergency and weather alerts from state and local authorities. Smartphones have them turned on by default, but often being able to read the full text is difficult.

Develop a family communication plan. Discuss with your loved one the most comfortable way to be in touch. If you’re keeping track of several friends and family, you’ll want to know where each one is, whether they are in safe places, how they’re feeling, whether they’re injured and if they’re getting clean water, food and necessary medical treatment.

You can use a group text, email or a phone call. Also, be sure to include an out-of-state contact person to serve as a point person in case your loved one is unable to get through to you. Kraemer advises teaching your loved one how to send a short text message such as "IMOK" — I’m OK — as a simple, quick way to get through overloaded cellular networks.

Follow up with assisted living and nursing homes

As with a loved one at home, you’ll want people in assisted living and nursing homes to have a list of local contacts, a personal emergency supply kit and copies of important documents stored both digitally and in a waterproof bag for safekeeping. But the most important step is to make an appointment with the management team at your loved one’s residence to discuss the staff’s disaster preparedness and evacuation plans.

“It’s really incumbent upon the older adult and the family caregiver to find out what plans they have in place for emergencies and whether they review, test and update them regularly,” Crocker says.

To learn about specifics, ask the following questions:

  • How are power outages handled? How many backup generators are on site and what is their maintenance and test schedule?
  • Who will administer medications and tend to special needs, such as oxygen therapy, during an emergency?
  • Who will be responsible for evacuating your loved one and getting him or her to a safe place?
  • How will the staff handle people who cannot walk versus those who can?
  • What’s the ratio of caregivers to care recipients during an emergency?
  • What plans are in place to bring in extra staff to help in a crisis?
  • How will the staff communicate with family members during an emergency?

Creating a plan for handling emergencies before they occur can help everyone involved stay calm, cool, collected and safe when the need arises. If your loved one has some memory loss or cognitive disability, others’ frantic actions and any necessity to rush can make a hectic situation worse.

AARP editor Deirdre van Dyk contributed to this story, which has been updated with additional details.

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