From Evacuation Plans to Insurance Coverage: Emergency Preparedness For Seniors
When a weather emergency or natural disaster blows through a city, there’s little time to prepare. While many people are capable of quickly evacuating during an emergency, this is not the case for some seniors. According to the Red Cross, approximately half of all deaths resulting from Hurricane Katrina were among people aged 75 years or older.
The impact on seniors during an emergency does not end when the crisis ends. After a natural disaster, financial limitations can make it more difficult for seniors living on a fixed income to recover from a natural disaster. For family members, caregivers and seniors themselves, having an emergency preparedness plan in place can keep your loved ones safe and help them maintain financial security.
The Impact of Weather Emergencies on Seniors by the Numbers
Seniors are consistently among the hardest hit physically and financially when it comes to natural disasters and other emergencies. A historical look at natural disasters and the percentage of deaths of people ages 60 and older shows that having an emergency evacuation plan for seniors is crucial.
Percentage of Total Natural Disaster Deaths - Over the Age of 60
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- EventElderly Deaths
- Hurricane Katrina 200571%
- Hurricane Sandy 201250%
- Japanese Tsunami 201165%
- Philippines Typhoon Yolanda 201339%
Source: Help Age International, Japan Times, Louisiana Department of Health, New York Times
Why Older Adults Are More Vulnerable During Weather Emergencies
From uncontrollable conditions related to aging to general lack of disaster management, facilities and resources, there are a variety of reasons that seniors are more vulnerable during an emergency.
Most emergencies call for quick evacuation from an area. For seniors who are affected by low mobility, it can be nearly impossible to get out of a home in a hurry without assistance.
Approximately 50% of adults who are 85 years or older report living alone. In the event of urgent evacuation, living alone can greatly hinder someone's ability to respond to an emergency appropriately.
Living on a fixed income:
People remain affected by disasters long past the event. Living on a fixed income can prevent survivors from having access to proper medical care after a natural disaster. Limited finances can also hinder someone from being able to rebuild their home if the event destroyed it.
Insufficient rescue resources:
Some rescue and evacuation services do not account for disabilities or immobility. Many procedures have changed since Hurricane Katrina, when organizations learned that many emergency communications were not accessible to those with disabilities. However, many evacuation vehicles still lack modifications and equipment, such as wheelchair ramps.
Improper disaster management:
Community and organization rescue plans tend to be based on large-scale evacuations, but this generalized thinking can cause evacuation routes to be inaccessible by seniors with disabilities. Many senior facilities and medical centers don't have adequate emergency evacuation plans in place.
Lack of disaster preparedness:
Many seniors don't have a proper plan in place with caregivers and loved ones for how to respond to an emergency.
Slower reaction time:
Cognitive and sensory reaction times slow with age. If someone cannot see or hear very well, they may miss important instructions for evacuation.
Having a chronic health condition:
An emergency serves as an interruption to routine medical care, which can lead to death weeks after an event. If someone is on a strict care program, a natural disaster could cause fatal damage to the facility and equipment needed to care for the senior patient.
Seniors who have dementia or similar challenges may not have the ability to understand the urgency of an emergency.
Reluctance to leave the home:
Many seniors are reluctant to leave their homes during an emergency. Feelings of anxiety, confusion and stress can lead to a problematic evacuation.
While government and local agencies are working to implement more structured services for seniors, a big part of the responsibility still falls on the caregiver and family to make sure that continual checking in and a proper evacuation plan is in place in the event of an emergency.
Preparing Seniors for an Emergency
Special Considerations for Seniors
Having a successful emergency plan requires anticipating the needs of an individual should they need to be evacuated. Dr. Samir K. Sinha M.D., D.Phil., FRCPC, AGSF, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, suggests thinking about the following special considerations for seniors.
- Does an individual have mobility, hearing or vision issues that will need to be supported?
- Do they have extra equipment that can transport easily or replacement batteries to keep things powered?
- Does an individual have dementia?
- Does the senior rely on essential medications?
M.D., D.Phil., FRCPC, AGSF, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council
Dr. Sinha adds, "these are the things we can think about in advance, have a plan in mind to better anticipate and manage them and continually review them every six months, as a loved one’s needs may evolve as well."
Emergency Supplies and Documents
The first step in disaster planning for senior and disabled people is having proper supplies and documents easily accessible at a moment's notice. Should your elderly loved ones need to quickly evacuate their home, having easy access to necessary documentation is crucial. If they're unable to leave their home and are trapped for hours or days at a time, assuring they always have adequate supplies on hand can be a life-saver.
Documents & Supplies
- Birth certificate
- Social security card
- Citizenship papers
- Marriage license
- Medical records
- Insurance policies such as home, rent, auto, life, health, disability, long-term care
- Property deeds of trust
- Mortgage documents
- Vehicle registration and titles
- Household inventory
- Will and trust
- Funeral instructions
- Powers of attorney
- Previous year of tax returns
- Stock and bond certificates
- Investment records
- Retirement account information
- Credit card information
- Banking information
- 3-day supply of non-perishable food and water
- Battery-powered radio
- First aid-kit
- Sanitation and hygiene items
- Matches and candles
- Extra batters
- Basic kitchen utensils
- A 30-day supply of medications and medical supplies
Establish a Personal Network and Emergency Plan
Many seniors who do not survive natural disasters lack a network to help them evacuate or to check in on them. Creating a personal network of people to check in on a loved one as well as an emergency plan that caregivers, family and the individual are aware of is an essential step in getting loved ones to safety. There are a variety of scenarios where the distance from relatives and a lack of emergency preparedness for caregivers can be fatal for an older person during an event.
If a senior with disabilities is trapped in a home that is flooding and no one knows to check in on them, they could get trapped in floodwaters before being evacuated.
During the 1995 heatwave in the Midwest, the median age of the 465 people in Chicago whose deaths were heat-related was 75. Faulty air conditioning units, loss of power and needing to wait in exposed heat for help have all been fatal experiences for seniors during emergencies.
In the event of a power outage, an older person may not be able to access emergency communications.
Evacuating a home:
For seniors with low mobility and disabilities, it’s nearly impossible to evacuate a home by themselves.
Who should be involved in an emergency plan?
- Closest located family members
- Living facility staff
- Volunteers who are willing to help in the event of an emergency
- Additional family members who may get called in to assist
Having a “practice run” and refreshing your or your loved ones’ personal network of the emergency plan can assure that no one is left behind during an emergency.
Use Assistive Technology
Assistive technology allows seniors to achieve tasks they may not otherwise be able to in their day-to-day life. During a natural disaster, special technology can help keep individuals informed of the situation, connected with rescue officials and loved ones and evacuated quickly if necessary.
Easily call 911, loved ones or other pre-programmed contacts. You can also set up emergency alerts, and customize a phone's appearance and ringtone to account for hearing or vision impairment.
Cameras inside the vehicle:
Most new cars are equipped with a back-up camera, but adding additional cameras in a vehicle can help the driver navigate obstacles.
Keyless car entry:
Eliminate the possibility of looking for or fumbling with keys.
Emergency warnings and updates:
Make sure cell phones are enabled to accept emergency warnings and updates so individuals are notified during an emergency.
Mapping data apps can be used to locate areas with a high concentration of older adults.
Sensory enhancing technology:
Hearing amplifiers, glasses and magnifiers can help those with low vision and who are hard of hearing.
For those with mobility needs, spare walkers, canes wheelchairs can assist in an emergency.
“There are many other examples, but this helps to give a sense of appreciating how much these things can help for example when we know at least 25% of older adults have hearing or vision issues and a reasonable number live with mobility considerations, too,” explains Dr. Sinha.
Prepare and Protect the Home
Whether you own your home, live with family or are leasing space, proper preparation can protect your home during a disaster. This is no different for seniors living in any of these scenarios. The following tips are ways for seniors to prepare their homes for an unforeseen event. Seniors with disabilities or who are unable to prepare their homes can ask a loved one, caregiver, volunteer or local emergency preparedness agency to help prepare their home.
- If you’re reliant on mobility aids, make sure all obstacles or barriers are removed near the evacuation point.
- Have back-up power supplies should you have medical equipment or devices that require power.
- Keep a disaster supplies kit with at least 7-days worth of supplies somewhere accessible.
- Label all your equipment, especially canes, wheelchairs, and walkers with your name, address and phone number.
- Keep all mobility devices charged at all times.
- Plan the best and quickest escape route from your home.
- Know safe places within your home in case you need to take shelter there.
- Post emergency phone numbers near your phone.
- Have a plan for your pets and service animals.
Update and Understand Insurance Coverage
Natural disasters take no mercy when it comes to displacing you from your home and disrupting your daily routine. Insurance can help you get back on your feet and begin to replace any assets that may have been damaged during a natural disaster.
- Auto - If you rely on your vehicle to get around, you'll want to make sure you have the proper car insurance coverage should it be destroyed during a natural disaster. Comprehensive coverage ensures that you'll be covered during a natural disaster. Collateral coverage will only cover your vehicle if another object hits it. Should your car flood or be destroyed during a hurricane, comprehensive coverage will pay for the damage or replacement of the vehicle.
- Home - Owning a home means you're legally obliged to have homeowners insurance. However, some damage from natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding may not be included in your regular policy, but you can get insurance separately for events that aren't covered. If you don't own your home, look into renters insurance to cover your assets should they be destroyed during a natural disaster.
- Health - Health insurance can help pay for medical bills, medications, hospital stays and more during a natural disaster. Whether you're on Medicare, Medicaid or an individual health plan, make sure to speak with your insurance company about any special considerations to your health and mobility should you find yourself in an emergency.
Recovering After a Natural Disaster or Emergency
The storm has come and gone, but there's still a lot of work to do. You're likely to feel a wide range of emotions before, during and after an event. Questions like, "Can I live in my house again?," "What does the future hold?" and "What should I do now?" are common. The first step is to assess the damage to your assets, including your home, car, and possessions. Your insurance company and local disaster relief organizations can help you evaluate the damage to your assets.
Contact Disaster Relief Assistance
Disaster relief organizations are there to help those affected by a natural disaster recover. From providing shelter and supplies to helping rebuild homes, there are a variety of organizations that can and will step in after a natural disaster. Organizations will usually have local branches, or in the event of a massive natural disaster, the headquarters will deploy relief teams.
File Insurance Claims
When it comes to filing an insurance claim, your age will not affect the process. However, if your home or car is destroyed in a natural disaster, filing an insurance claim may look a little different than what you've seen before.
Steps to successfully filing a claim:
1. Assess the damage Take photos and or videos of any damage
2. Contact your insurance company If you were involved in a natural disaster, your insurance company will be well aware of the situation and working with multiple claims. However, you still need to file an insurance claim for any damage for which you’re seeking coverage.
3. Fill out forms Your insurance company will have a list of forms for you to fill out associated with your claim. Promptly filling out forms may help you receive your payout quicker.
4. Work with an adjuster The insurance company will send an adjuster to assess the damage and will guide you through the steps of getting paid or replacing your lost assets.
If you’re unable to file a claim yourself, a caregiver or loved one can do so for you as long as they have access to your insurance policy information and can provide all the above details.
Unfortunately, the elderly are especially susceptible to insurance and financial scams. A few of the most common scenarios include:
- Someone posing as a Medicare or Medicaid professional to get personal information
- A caller posing as a grandchild in need of money
- Someone claiming they need your medical ID information
How to avoid scams:
- Never provide personal information over the phone unless you’ve called your insurance company yourself.
- Do not purchase medical supplies or prescriptions from door-to-door salespeople or over the phone.
- Don’t feel pressured into signing any contracts or forms you’re not comfortable with signing.
- Have a caregiver or loved one assist you with important insurance calls and correspondence.
Expert Advice on Senior Emergency Preparedness
Dr. Samir Sinha is a passionate and respected advocate for the needs of older adults. Dr. Sinha currently serves as the director of geriatrics of the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto and the Peter and Shelagh Godsoe Chair in Geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital. He is also an associate professor in the Departments of Medicine, Family and Community Medicine, and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto and an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
What is the biggest mistake the elderly and their caregivers make in emergency preparedness for seniors?
Dr. Samir K. Sinha:
Not preparing. We don’t like to think about death or disasters. But not thinking about the reality that we could be likely affected by a natural disaster puts us at greater risk. None of us wants to be a victim but appreciating that there are things we can do to be prepared in case a disaster strikes will likely give someone peace of mind before, during and after an emergency.
If a senior lives alone and has no family close by, what do you recommend they do to prepare for an emergency?
Dr. Samir K. Sinha:
Get to know what local resources may be available. Some communities have local vulnerable person registries that one can be registered on for free. This enables local emergency services to know who may need to be checked on and supported first. In some cases, the local power company likes to know who in the community is using electricity to power medical devices so that they can be reconnected first. It's also good to connect with local senior centers and organizations to help develop ways to build one's local social network. When seniors living alone can connect with others in their community, they are less likely to be socially isolated and more likely to be able to support each other in case of an emergency.
If a senior finds themselves in an emergency without a preparedness plan, what's the best thing they can do to get to safety?
Dr. Samir K. Sinha:
Ask for help. Call the authorities and let them know what your issues are and what help you may need. Emergency and disaster responders want to help, but they can only help people when they know who they are and what they need. They may have to prioritize helping others with more significant needs first, but at least they will know about you and not forget about you. As it's never clear what an emergency or disaster response may look like, it's another reason to take the time now to make a plan to be prepared in case something like this happens to you.
Resources for Seniors and Caregivers Before and After an Emergency
Being involved in an emergency or natural disaster doesn't mean you won’t be able to recover financially. There are organizations and governmental agencies dedicated to helping seniors and others weather the storm before, during, and after a natural disaster.
- AARP: AARP has created a do-it-yourself project for organizations, communities and individuals to prepare properly for an emergency.
- Eldercare Directory: This helpful website has compiled a list of aging services division contacts for every state.
- Family Caregiver Alliance: Caregivers can use this checklist to ensure the seniors entrusted to their care are properly prepared for a disaster.
- FEMA: This federal agency has created a video on the importance of being prepared for an emergency.
- NOAA Workforce Management Office: Seniors and caregivers can use this list to help plan ahead for emergencies.
- Red Cross Disaster Preparedness for Seniors by Seniors: The Red Cross has released a comprehensive guide designed for seniors by seniors to help them prepare for a disaster.
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation: Seniors and their caregivers can use this list to find non-profit relief groups that work with disasters.
Natural disasters are a part of life in almost all areas of the world, but in the U.S., there have been many measures taken to ensure its citizens are cared for in the event of an emergency. While a natural disaster can be stressful and upsetting, by being prepared, practicing emergency protocol ahead of time and reaching out for the help they need, seniors and their caregivers can recover and come back stronger than ever.
About the Author
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