En español | No one wants to contemplate the possibility of a natural disaster striking the area where an older loved one lives — but it's wise to consider what to do in such instances before an emergency happens.
After all, hurricanes, tornados, fires, floods and other disasters could happen at any time. And given the increasing frequency and severity of intense weather-related events and other so-called natural disasters, it may not be a case of if, but when.
It's a mistake to assume someone else has established a disaster preparedness plan ahead of time. In a 2015 study involving more than 1,300 older adults, researchers from the University of Iowa found that only 34 percent reported participating in an educational program or reading information about disaster preparedness.
More recently, a 2018 study by Rand Health found that most age-friendly communities and senior villages in the U.S. do not place a high priority on promoting disaster preparedness.
While most public health departments have conducted disaster preparedness programs, these aren't necessarily designed to address the needs and challenges of older adults. And yet, older adults are especially vulnerable during and after disasters, whether because they have chronic health conditions or mobility challenges.
That's why it's smart to “take preparatory steps in non-emergent 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:
If a loved one lives in his or her own home:
Start by making a list of friends, neighbors, faith leaders and other close acquaintances who can check on your loved one if you live far away, and figure out how they will stay in touch with you during an emergency. Exchange phone numbers, emails and other contact information with these folks, create a call list and post this info near your loved one's phone.
"If all else fails, you can call the nonemergency number for the police department and ask them to do a well-being check. But it's better to have a list of people who could help,” says Ruth Drew, director of information and support services at the Alzheimer's Association. Team help is critical in a local disaster when police may be inundated with calls for assistance.
Figure out an evacuation route in case your loved one needs to relocate before, during or after an emergency. Determine how he or she can leave home safely, where he or she should go and what the best route is (including a plan for transportation). This is especially important if a loved one lives in an area that's susceptible to hurricanes and other damaging storms, Drew says.
Encourage your loved one to listen to the radio or TV for advice about whether to evacuate or remain in place. Also, figure out the safest way for your loved one to shelter in place during an extreme weather event 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 that your loved one can carry or roll easily. It should include at least a three-day supply of medications, nonperishable foods and water, medical devices (such as hearing aids and batteries, glasses or contacts), a flashlight and batteries, personal hygiene items and chargers for cellphones. Review the contents every three to six months to make sure the supplies are up to date; replace items that have expired and add new ones as needed.
Make copies of important documents and place them in a waterproof bag for safekeeping. These should include a copy of your loved one's medical insurance card, a photo ID, power of attorney documents, a list of his or her allergies and health conditions, a list of all medications that your loved one takes (including dosage, time of day and who prescribed them), and contact info for family members, doctors and caregivers. Keep the bag in a memorable place and remind your loved one to grab it before evacuating.
Develop a communication plan before it's needed. Discuss with your loved one how he or she feels most comfortable letting family members know where and how he or she is — whether it's through a group text, email or a phone call, Drew advises. Also, be sure to select an out-of-town contact person in case it becomes easier to make a long-distance call than a local one during an extreme weather event.
If a loved one lives in an assisted living community or nursing home:
In these situations, it's also important to create a list of your loved one's friends and neighbors who can check in on your family member. Depending on your family member's health and cognitive status, you also may want to create a portable personal emergency supply kit and place copies of important documents in a waterproof bag for safekeeping.
But the most important steps involve making an appointment with someone from the management team to discuss the facility'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 there — does the facility have backup generators and are they maintained regularly?
- Who will administer medications and tend to special needs like 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 are ambulatory versus those who are nonambulatory?
- What's the ratio of caregivers to care recipients during an emergency?
- Will the facility bring in extra people?
- How will the staff communicate to family members what's being done to care for loved ones during an emergency?
"It can't be overemphasized that folks who are caring for older adults need to remain calm, kind and reassuring,” Drew says. “Getting rushed and frantic only makes things worse, especially if the person has a brain disease.” Creating a plan for handling emergencies ahead of time can help everyone involved stay calm, cool, collected and safe if or when one does occur.