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Disaster Planning and Recovery for Seniors


Studies have found that seniors are more likely to experience injury during a disaster. This can be due to several factors, including pre-existing conditions, slower reaction speed, or even weaker bones. Due to their increased risk, it’s crucial that seniors have a disaster plan. Seniors living independently, as well as seniors living in a retirement community or with a full-time caretaker, can benefit from having a disaster plan.

Disaster planning for seniors may look different than disaster planning for someone under the age of 65. For example, questions of accessibility, factoring in-home accommodations, and whether or not they need mobility assistance all become of critical importance. How much a senior can lift versus a young adult also varies largely, meaning that any kits need to be tailored for the senior’s ability.

Preparing for a Disaster

Where you live, as well as other risk factors such as pre-existing conditions will help determine how you should prepare for a disaster. For example, someone living in California would need to be more prepared for earthquakes and wildfires, while someone living in Florida would need to be more prepared for hurricanes. When preparing for a disaster, you should take into consideration your highest risk factors and your needs and abilities.

Building an Emergency Kit

An emergency kit is the first step to being ready for any disaster. This kit will ensure that you have everything you need if you are stranded in your home. For seniors, you should pack a few extra items in your kit, such as:

  • Non-perishable food for at least two days;
  • Clean drinking water for at least two days;
  • Medications and a first aid kit;
  • A phone or battery-operated radio;
  • Blankets and clean clothes;
  • Necessary medical equipment, such as hearing aids, wheelchair or crutches, and an oxygen tank;
  • Backup batteries, including batteries for medical equipment;
  • Emergency documents including your will, power of attorney, do-not-resuscitate orders (if applicable), and medical alerts. 
  • Names and phone numbers of your personal support network.

This equipment may be too heavy to carry all at once. As a senior, you might consider stocking your shelter or car with some or all of these items. This way, they’re already in place when you need them or they’re easier to transport.

Making an Emergency Plan

An emergency plan is the actions you and your household will take in the event of an emergency. This plan is important to have settled and memorized so that you can recall it easily in a crisis. This plan can include evacuation routes, meeting points, people to contact, and the location of medications, like an EpiPen.

Even if you live alone it’s smart to get at least one other person nearby involved in your emergency plan, particularly if you’re a senior. This way, if you become incapacitated, someone will know what to do.

Personal Support Network

Seniors often need help with evacuating or responding to an emergency. If they live alone, having a support system of trusted neighbors, relatives, or nearby friends who can help during an emergency is important. When you’re creating this support network, proximity is key. Trusted neighbors are an ideal choice, as they are within visual distance and can respond quickly.

Additionally, this personal support network could act as a safety net in the event of a medical emergency, if you or your loved one is incapacitated and can’t call for emergency services.

Evacuation Plans and Meeting Points

Having an evacuation plan in case of a fire, flood, or other emergencies that require you to leave your home will help mitigate injury and panic. If you or your loved one has mobility concerns that will complicate evacuation, creating a plan that works for you is even more crucial. Accessible home renovations like ramps and grab bars can help seniors get themselves to safety if no one is around. Emergency service alert buttons may also be a good investment for your senior loved one.

Once evacuated, it’s important to have a meeting point. If your senior loved one lives in your household and you get separated, this meeting point serves as a place to reconnect. Even if your senior loved one lives outside of your household, having an established meeting place is helpful, as it gives you a place to check first before calling emergency services.

Pet Considerations

Pets are often viewed as a part of the family, so if you have a pet, it’s important to factor them into your disaster plan. Emergency services, such as the fire department, can assist in evacuating your pet if you are physically unable. It may be counterintuitive, but it’s important to save yourself first, and then worry about your pet.

Public emergency shelters don’t allow pets, aside from service animals, so you’ll want to keep any service animal paperwork in your emergency papers. Vaccination records of your animal may also be a smart thing to include, as this can make it easier for you to find boarding.

Questions to Ask Your Loved One’s Long-Term Care Facility

If your senior loved one lives in a long-term care facility, there are questions you should ask to better understand the facility's disaster measures. This can give you peace of mind, as well as relieve worry during a disaster, as you’ll know how your loved one is being taken care of.

  • What is their general emergency plan?
  • How are families contacted?
  • Do the staff have emergency training?
  • What are the on-site emergency resources?
  • What are the evacuation procedures?
  • When were the facility’s emergency resources last inspected?

Care facilities have to follow certain laws in emergencies. These include medical standards of care, risk management, supply and assistance allocation, and so on. If you’re interested in finding the legal obligations of these care facilities, you can look at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ technical resources on the subject.

Staying Safe During a Disaster

In some cases, disasters may happen without warning. This is particularly the case with natural disasters. That’s why it’s important to know how to respond as a disaster approaches. First, you will need to decide when to stay and when to go.

According to Herald, seniors are the age group most likely to disregard evacuation warnings and are resistant to leaving their homes. This can pose serious physical injury risks, and even be life-threatening. This is why it’s important to follow all state or city-wide safety protocols as issued.

Sheltering in Place

Weathering a disaster in your home or emergency public shelters should be your last resort, especially if you have special needs or a disability. Shelters aren’t typically equipped for people with special needs or disabilities, and you may be stranded in your home for an indeterminate amount of time. Some coastal areas do have shelters that are capable of handling evacuees with special needs, so do your research ahead of time to find out where these shelters are located.

Fire Safety

If you’re in a building or area that’s caught fire, the first thing you should do is find a safe evacuation route. For seniors, their ability to move freely may limit these routes, and depending on where the fire started, they may not be able to get out safely on their own. If this is the case, call emergency services immediately. Next, you should get as low to the ground as possible until they come. Smoke rises, so getting low will help prevent damage to your lungs from smoke inhalation.

Fire damage to your home or possessions should be your secondary concern — your safety comes first. You can prevent fires from spreading quickly in your home by reducing the amount of clutter in common areas, so there are fewer things to catch, and keeping heated areas like stoves and vents clear.

Flood Safety

When dealing with a flood in your home, the amount of water will determine what steps you should take. For a minor flood, such as a pipe bursting, you may not need to call emergency services. However, for a large flood caused by a storm or natural disaster, it’s important to get yourself to safety.

Evacuation during a flood can be tricky. According to Ready.gov, just six inches of floodwater is enough to knock a person down, and a foot of water can sweep away a vehicle. So you should avoid trying to walk or drive through floodwaters higher than six inches at all costs.

It’s incredibly important to pay attention to storm warnings, and take shelter before a flood occurs if possible. If this is not possible, you’ll want to find the highest ground you can get. Ascend to upper floors or even the roof, but avoid enclosed spaces, like the attic.

Evacuating With Special Medical Needs

If your loved one is unable to evacuate their home due to special medication needs or disabilities, alert the local emergency services. This way, they can be safely evacuated. It’s smarter to alert emergency services, rather than try and go yourself. The roads may not be safe enough for regular vehicles to drive, and you could be putting your own life in danger.

If your senior loved one’s doctor recommends evacuating to a hospital or other medical facility, you will need to arrange for pre-admittance. To do this, you will need to obtain a pre-admission letter from your doctor that says your loved one is to be taken to a specific hospital or nursing home in the event of an emergency. You can make copies of this letter, and keep one in the vehicle, one in the emergency kit, and one on their person to ensure they always have it.

Returning Home Safely

Before you enter your home after a disaster, be sure to check the house foundation, stairs, roof, and chimney for structural damage. Be careful when entering a damaged building. Wear protective clothing on any exposed skin, including helmets, face masks, gloves, and boots. If there is no structural damage to the home, you’ll still want to wear sturdy footwear and a face mask. This will protect you from stepping on any debris or inhaling any particulate matter.

Mold can be another concern after a disaster, particularly after a flood or hurricane. Mold may grow in places that aren’t directly visible, and if left untreated, can pose serious health risks. If you have any doubts about the safety of your home, have your home inspected by a professional and get their help removing or preventing any mold growth.

Considerations for Seniors Recovering From a Disaster

There are government assistance programs available for people who have been severely displaced due to a disaster. For less extreme damage, your homeowner’s insurance may be able to help with losses.

Physical damage isn’t the only thing you need to think about when it comes to recovering from a disaster. Disasters can be traumatic and leave lingering effects on mental health. This may include depression, heightened anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Be sure to emotionally check in with your loved one after a disaster. Disaster counseling is also a great resource that is specifically tailored for victims of a disaster.

Cleaning up After a Disaster

Depending on the physical and property damage, cleaning up after a disaster can take from a few days to months. Repairing the damage to your home, conducting safety inspections, and deep cleaning and odor removal can all be time-consuming and costly. Damage clean-up might also be hazardous, as you may be exposed to broken glass, exposed or jagged metal, or hazardous air particulates like mold.

For seniors, hiring a professional clean-up service after a disaster can prevent injury and ensure long-term safety. There are several reasons you should consider hiring a professional, instead of DIY-ing disaster clean-up. These include:

  • You could be walking into unseen hazards;
  • You could use the wrong tools;
  • You could miss an important detail;
  • Even a short wait can worsen the damage;
  • You may not have the skills to repair things like plumbing or wiring;
  • Cutting corners can result in injury or prolonged damage.

While DIY may seem like the cheaper and faster option, this is not always the case. You could be putting yourself or your loved one unknowingly into danger. Hiring a professional for large repair jobs is the best way to ensure your loved one’s safety.

Additional Resources for Seniors and Families in Emergency Planning

The government, as well as several non-profit organizations, offer reading and resources for senior disaster management. Some of the organizations include:

These resources are specifically designed by seniors, or with senior health in mind when it comes to emergencies. They offer checklists and contact numbers that will be of service, as well as tips and tricks.

Disaster preparedness can save a life. Making an emergency kit, creating a disaster plan, and knowing the resources available to you takes a small amount of effort, and has big payoffs.