Proactive Natural Disaster Guide for Seniors

December 3, 2018

Photo by Katarzyna Grabowska on Unsplash

 

The U.S. is a country that is prone to natural disasters. Most European countries are relatively safe, as hurricanes and floods occur there less often than on this side of the pond. But for our country, just like for Japan and other Asian countries and beyond, it is a serious problem that should always be kept in mind.

It is not without reason that every household is recommended to have an emergency plan to be used in case of a natural disaster. Such events are dangerous for anyone, but there are ones that are more likely to be injured or die following a disaster. These are seniors.

Inadequately prepared

There are many reasons why the elderly are more vulnerable. But it is not only them who fail to take preventive measures to try to reduce the risk of falling victim to natural disasters. According to a team of researchers from Columbia University, the majority of Americans (65%) do not take preparation for disasters seriously and have inadequate or no emergency plans. Not only that, more than half of those living in the US are unaware of what hazards are more likely to occur in the particular area they live in. Another research, which was carried out by FEMA, showed that the share of those who have an emergency plan with which household members are familiar makes up less than 40%. As far as disaster supplies are concerned, 52% of Americans reported storing supplies that can be used in case of disaster.

This statistics shows that despite the relatively high risk of natural disasters, the level of awareness still leaves much to be desired. The figures above are for everyone across the board, with no differentiation according to age. While it may seem that the elderly are more concerned with safety and precautions, research revealed that their preparedness is generally worse than that of younger Americans. Of the 1304 participants aged 50 or older involved in the project, only 34.3% attended courses aimed at increasing disaster awareness or at least read materials about it. The figures are especially concerning since 15% of them also used medical devices that require electricity, which is often unavailable when a disaster strikes, but less than a quarter of them had an emergency plan. What is more, worse levels of preparedness were observed among those who were older or disabled, and an association was found between preparedness and education and income. Thus, those in their 80s and 90s were more vulnerable than the participants in their 60s and 70s. The survey outlined the problems that senior face in terms of coping with such situations. These include lack of transportation, and being unaware of where they can seek help in case of emergency.

Poor preparedness levels among seniors are especially alarming, since they have a much higher risk of dying because of natural disasters than others. When hurricane Sandy hit the country six years ago, it took lives of 44 citizens of New York, 31 of whom were 55 or older. It is indicative of the need for taking special measures to protect them and try to prevent these deaths. Most of these victims drowned in their homes – something that could have been prevented, had others helped them prepare for such natural calamities.

The statistics above are for those who live independently. If you think that the ones living in nursing homes and similar facilities are better protected, you are wrong. Even evacuation results in an increase in mortality following a natural disaster. As research showed, post-evacuation mortality increases from 0.03% to 10.5% at 1 month, and this effect persists for at least 6 months. Medicaid and Medicare guidelines require long-term care facilities to have emergency plans, but it is only recently that it began to dawn on law-makers that amendments are needed in terms of disaster preparedness and protection of the vulnerable. It is one of the reasons such plans are often inadequate and overlook things that result in more problems.

NPR reports that nursing facilities are unprepared not only for hurricanes and the like, but also for more mundane emergencies. Even if emergency plans are written, there are usually no drills, and facility staff is not trained to carry out evacuation properly. Even the most basic things are often neglected. Among the violations cited are failure to ensure safe evacuation, including the failure to evacuate residents in the right order in case of fire, having emergency exits locked, and even not testing generators regularly.

Despite the fact that over 2,300 violations were issued within the past 4 years, only 20 of them were deemed serious. For some reason, nursing homes are rarely, if ever, penalized for not having proper emergency plans. And even if they do have them, it is just a paper with instructions written on it, while the focus should be on practice, drills, and training employees to act accordingly.

As seen from the statistics above, the elderly are one of the most vulnerable categories of Americans who are more likely to be injured or die in the course or following a natural disaster. The current state of affairs does not enable us to call the overall preparedness levels sufficient, in both private houses and nursing facilities.

Basic Disaster Facts

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What is actually a natural disaster? By the word ‘disaster’, the negative effect a natural hazard produces on humans is meant. It is not the event itself, but the consequences it brings forth. So the very notion is human-centered: without the humankind involved, only natural events can occur, as the notion of a disaster implies the impact it has on human beings.

What kinds of disasters, or hazards, to be exact, are there? In the U.S., there are several types of natural hazards that are more likely to occur, but a more comprehensive list is longer.

  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Floods
  • Earthquakes
  • Landslides
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Draughts
  • Tsunami
  • Asteroid impacts
  • Lightening
  • Thunderstorms
  • Subsidence
  • Tropical cyclones

These are either geologic or atmospheric hazards. Besides, there are wildfires, insect infestations, and epidemics.

The U.S. is a large country, and different regions have different risks associated with the prevailing natural hazard type. Coastal areas are prone to natural disasters due to their immediate proximity to the ocean and other climate-determined factors. The areas that are devastated by hurricanes more often than others are Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Winter storms are more likely to hit the shores of the Atlantic and New England. Floods are common along the bank of the Mississippi River. In California, it is fires and draughts that are a major concern.

Given the diversity of hazards and varying prevalence of their types in different areas, it is evident that preparedness should be shaped by the particular needs of the people living in a given area. If it is heatwaves that are more likely to strike, measures must be taken to ensure all seniors are provided with equipment capable of maintaining comfortable temperature. In areas with substantial seismic activity, construction must comply with the requirements set for buildings that can withstand such loads – including nursing homes.

It is the authorities that are responsible for taking all these factors into account while devising plans to prevent and counter the effects of natural calamities, but individuals should also keep in mind what events occurred in your area so as to have supplies suitable for providing the household with basic food and other things in a particular situation.

How to Get Prepared

The scope of preparation for natural disasters depends on whether a senior lives independently or not. In either case, emergency plans have different features.

For those who live independently

Here is what you can do to protect your senior family members living independently.

  • Learn more about potential hazards. Find out what hazards are likely to occur in the area you live in. Besides the ones affecting the entire community or region, like hurricanes, there are ones that can affect only your household – for instance, a home fire.
  • Learn more about how your area is prepared for emergencies. Find out how you are going to be notified should an emergency occur, whether it is by means of TV, local radio, or some other way. Look through the local evacuation and community response plans, and locate shelters specified in these documents so that you know where you should be heading for in such cases. Learn how NOAA Weather Radio works to stay up-to-date. Do not forget to share this information with your seniors.
  • Plan your escape. In case of a home fire or other emergency, you will have to leave the house immediately. Think about what ways you can escape every single room of your house. There should always be at least two of them, because one of them may be blocked by fire or obstacles. After you have written the plan, give copies to all household members. Practice the plan twice a year to make sure everyone knows what to do. Besides, it is recommended that you assign responsibilities for each family member: who takes the things that should not be left in the house, etc. If the shelter designated in your local emergency plan is not near, find a safe location where your family can go right after escaping. Another advice is to equip your house with ladders so that you can escape rooms that are above ground level. If your senior uses a wheelchair, consider how you can evacuate him or her with it.
  • Do not forget about communication. Emergencies are virtually always sudden, which means not all your household members may be at home when a disaster strikes. Always have a means of communication so that you can contact the rest of your family. Help your seniors familiarize with their cell phone – not all elderly are tech-savvy.
  • Have an emergency kit. Make a kit and check expiration dates regularly – you don’t want to end up eating food that has long gone off simply because you forgot to check your supplies. As to the content of the kit, there should be food and water supplies for three days (for each family member), a flashlight, battery-powered radio, first aid kit, toilette paper and other hygiene items that you may need (like soap, for instance; forget about perfume in the emergency kit), matches, blankets, a multi-purpose tool, copies of important documents, etc. Take a look at what the Red Cross advises to get and add the items that your family needs apart from what they list (i.e. special medications, extra batteries for medical devices, etc).

 

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  •  Prepare emergency contact cards. Each family member should carry an emergency contact card in their wallet, pocket or other place that can be easily accessed by someone else should such a need arise. State your name, your blood type, the medications you take, whether you are allergic to something, your communication difficulties (whether your hearing is impaired, etc.), immunizations, and how to contact your relatives and friends. State what kind of medical devices your seniors need.
  • Attend a first aid course. Make sure there is a member of the household who knows first aid inside out and can use AED. The more people are trained, the better, as you may be separated due to the disaster, and every group of your household should have someone who can serve as a paramedic.
  • Purchase fire extinguishers. Do not forget to replace them when they expire. Familiarize your family with it. Having several fire extinguishers is recommended, because it may be difficult to access the only one you have due to fire spreading fast.
  • Plan how your seniors can notify you that there is an emergency. Besides cell phones, there are other things you can use. If your senior is disabled, his or her hearing or vision is impaired, or there is some other health problem that prevents them from escaping the room ASAP, and make sure they can call for help: equip them with phones, whistles, and extra bars to hold onto while escaping. Remove all objects that can prevent the senior from moving freely.

The READY.gov portal has compiled a short paper which highlights the key aspects of improving your level of preparedness.

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For those who live in a long-term care facility

If your senior cannot live independently any more and has to stay at a nursing facility or a similar center, consider the following.

  • If your senior is already at such facility, make sure there is an emergency plan that is updated regularly. Consult a professional first and then ask the facility manager whether their papers comply with all the requirements set for emergency and evacuation plans. Check drill reports, ask them to show you the plans and the equipment used for evacuating the disabled, and make sure there is a functional generator.
  • If you are looking for a good long-term care facility, do some research and find one that meets all the requirements of a safe center. Such services are not cheap, so do not be afraid of asking about their standards and whether their staff is properly trained.
  • Analyze the reports focusing on disasters that happened in the past decades. The facilities that failed to protect their residents are usually listed there, and this information can help you choose the best option.
  • Always have a way to communicate with your senior relative immediately. If he or she cannot use a cell phone, make sure there is a person you can contact very fast to find out what is happening in the facility.

Technologies for Monitoring and Warning

In some cases, there is no opportunity to provide round-the-clock medical assistance, such as the one offered at nursing facilities. But a senior who cannot live independently due to being disabled or having mental problems should be monitored. To do this, you can use special devices and systems aimed at making it possible to check up on your senior at any moment and notifying you when something goes wrong.

First, make sure your senior always has access to their cell phone. If there is a major notification, it is sent by FEMA to all cell phones in the country.

Second, equip your senior relative with monitoring devices, with which the market is now seething. There are smart home systems which can track movement and heart rate. (Check the solutions offered by Google, Amazon and other major companies. The range of features their products boast is most impressive.) Among useful devices for monitoring the elderly are the following.

  • Wearable medical devices. There are options with monthly fees, like Philips Lifeline. Bracelets and other wearables can notify you when the senior wearing it has fallen, when their heart rate is not within the normal range, or some other problems the device is capable of detecting occur. Some of them have an emergency button integrated so that the wearer can call for help.

 

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  • Medical alert systems. These are complex solutions enabling their owner to monitor the health state and position of a family member. Some of them are installed at home; others are installed in cars and can report car crashes, movements, etc. One of the advantages of such systems is that they can connect the user to a live agent who can help in case of emergency. As to the drawbacks, few systems feature the function of comprehensive health monitoring: their primary purpose is to contact an emergency team ASAP. The systems that can monitor not only heart rate and falls, but also breathing and other parameters are being tested, but they are not that widespread. Another shortcoming is that they often turn out to be useless if a hurricane strikes. Still, medical alert systems can be of use in case of emergency, as they enable you to track the device wearer’s movement using GPS.

Extra Preventive Measures and Useful Links

Talk to your senior about natural disasters and evacuation. Explain why you want to monitor them, why it is important to head to a special shelter instead of staying at home, and that you are doing it because you love them. Many seniors are reluctant to leave their houses, even when something dangerous is looming. No technologies can substitute it: the trust you can build is a priority, so focus not only on preparation of emergency kits and plans, but on communication with your elder loved one.

Educate your elder relatives and share the information you have learnt about shelters and local evacuation plans. Help them learn how to use medical alert systems, wearables, and cell phones.

Another important aspect is training your seniors in basic first aid. They are extremely vulnerable if they are disabled, but those who are simply old and can be independent should know how to help themselves and others. Practice using first aid kits with your seniors. Write a guide on how to use your emergency kit – in some cases, it is impossible to access a person fast, so the person you take care of should know what to do if you are currently not here to help them.

Provide your seniors with materials for self-study. Here are some examples you may find interesting.

If your senior lives with a pet (or pets), do not forget to make a plan for them too. Loss of pet can affect your senior significantly, so make sure you can evacuate the pet too. Take a look at the ready.gov’s page about it.

Many states developed special resources and tools which you can use to prepare for natural disasters. The CDC has compiled a list of such tools by state. Find the ones by your state and focus on them first.

Get CPR certified online here. They issue nationally accepted certificates and offer a wide range of courses. You can complete as many as you like, but it is recommended that you opt for a one that includes AED.

Read the preparedness guide by the University of Hawaii. It is a comprehensive paper covering many aspects of preparing seniors for natural disasters, and it is aimed at caregivers.

You can also consider installing mobile apps that can be of use in emergency situations. Among these are Life360 for notifying your loved ones of your location, Plerts for sending SOS messages, and mealTrain, which may come in handy if you have no food to eat or appliances to cook it because of a natural disaster, and need help.

We live in a country in which natural disasters occur often. They claim many lives, and while we cannot counter acts of nature, we can try to help our most vulnerable. Today, preparedness levels across the country are a far cry from what they should be. You can change it today by learning more about the measures you can take, enrolling in a first aid course, and, which is most important, talking to your senior loved ones about it. No technologies can save them if you leave them to their own devices – it is your care and help that are required.

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