Every September the Red Cross, FEMA and other organizations declare National Emergency Preparedness Month. As a nation our natural disasters have tripled since the 1980s and the intensity of these hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, etc. have escalated exponentially. . And an estimated 15 million Americans over age 50 will need help evacuating in the case of a disaster.
Despite the statistics, a Harris Interactive Poll conducted after 9/11 when American sensitivity to disaster preparation was heightened showed only 55 percent of Americans had created a family emergency plan or made provisions to help an older loved one in case of another disaster.
For the 65 million family caregivers – especially the eight million who care for an older loved one long-distance – it is important to plan ahead and have the family conversation about emergency preparedness. Seniors are often on their own for the first hours of a disaster and services they may rely upon – meal delivery, in-home care, pharmacies – may not be operational in an emergency.
The most vulnerable Americans in a disaster are seniors over age 75. This article uses the heartwarming 75-year-old movie "Wizard of Oz" which begins with a tornado and delivers the message “there’s no place like home,” to help family caregivers understand local and federal available resources when a disaster strikes.
From Kansas to Oz – Shelter in Place or Evacuate
Half of all Americans over age 85 live at home alone according to latest U.S. Census. When a disaster strikes an area, many of those affected are instructed by local authorities to "shelter in place." This means stay in your home until further instructions. Depending on the emergency situation, authorities may also enforce an evacuation from the home. Caregivers and their parents need to be prepared for both scenarios.
Staying in Kansas
If the instruction is to shelter in place, caregivers need to help a loved one with the following three things:
1. Have medical information
Have the following written down where you can access it quickly: Your mom’s primary care physician’s name and emergency contact number, the types of medications she takes (including names, dosages and frequency), the pharmacy where she gets her prescriptions filled, her insurance information including their Medicare card ID number (also if she has a Medicare supplement plan or Part D plan). If you have to step in to help your parent, you may need to have all her vital information at your fingertips.
2. Store a two-week supply of essential items
Ensure your loved one has essentials to last two weeks if other resources are not available. This includes food (which can be eaten without having to cook it with gas or electric power), water supply, medications, cash (if banks and ATMs are not operational).
You may also recommend your loved one have a generator stored in the garage. If electrical power is unavailable and your loved one needs power for oxygen or other life-saving medical devices, this becomes essential.
3. Create a contact out of town
Designate someone who lives 100 miles outside of the area where your loved one lives and where you live (if the disaster strikes your community and your parent cannot reach you) as the family’s central emergency contact. This person becomes the communication hub between you and your parent in case you cannot reach each other – you can get messages to this third party to stay in touch.
Caregivers can also access real-time disaster update information from FEMA’s social media found at Ready.gov.
Leaving for Oz
If the instruction is to evacuate, caregivers need to know the following three things:
1. Have your parent’s “To Go” kit ready and within easy access
This “To Go” pack, which should be kept in an easy-to-grab backpack or rolling small case, becomes your parent’s lifeline if they need to evacuate. The kit should include instructions for emergency personnel (especially if your loved one is unconscious or cannot communicate) and life-saving essential items.
Information such as your parent has a bad hip or knee and walks with a walker, or requires a wheelchair or needs an oxygen tank will help emergency helpers grab essential items when evacuating residents. Also ensure it is written down your parent uses hearing aids, glasses, is partially blind or deaf, etc.
Have a 2-week supply of all medications, water for seven days, epi pens or incontinence products (which most shelters will not provide) and cash and ID with all medical and Medicare information included in the kit.
More than half of Americans over age 65 take at least three prescriptions daily. In disasters when local pharmacies may not be operational, it is essential to have a supply to help your parent through the first two weeks of any emergency. And keep the medications in a water-proof bag with information on each drug, dosage and frequency.
2. Research transportation and understand senior mobility issues
The scarcest commodity in a disaster is transportation services. If a parent still drives, caregivers should advise dad to always park the car with the gas tank at least half full. Most gas stations will not be operating in disasters and you don’t want an empty tank to mean your father has to walk miles to get to shelter.
If your loved one does not drive but has to evacuate, caregivers should investigate transportation services before the disaster strikes. There are volunteer services through senior centers or other resources through the local Area Agency on Aging. These can be important services for helping a parent leave the disaster area and get to you or a designated rendezvous point. Keep in mind everyone will be seeking transportation help in a disaster so having a plan mapped out before the crisis is critical.
Also mobility is a challenge for older Americans. When it comes to disasters, escalators or elevators may not be operational, making it difficult for older Americans who cannot easily navigate stairs. Walking far distances, standing in lines or sitting on hard or even damp cement at shelters also becomes problematic as we age.
Caregivers should investigate whether a local senior center is an option to a traditional Red Cross shelter which is not equipped to address older parent’s needs. Florida is the gold standard for this – senior centers offer water and food distribution so seniors do not have to stand in long lines at Red Cross shelters and the senior center volunteers will also deliver these items to homebound seniors.
Some local organizations are the best resource for your older parent in a disaster. New York-based God's Love We Deliver got hundreds of meals to housebound seniors in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Their drivers wear uniforms and the organization will call the senior and a family caregiver with the driver’s name to ensure a frightened senior knows the delivery person is safe to allow into their home. Often seniors are vulnerable to fraud, thieves and other abuse post-disaster.
3. Seek special shelters for frail seniors
There are also special needs shelter designated for the frail elderly, such as those who have had a stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or other diagnoses. These shelters are typically established in local schools or other public buildings and are staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.
Caregivers must remember, while special attention will be paid to your frail parent and beds, food and water provided, other items such as medical devices – including catheters, bedding and medications – are the responsibility of the patient or caregiver so ensure these items are included in your parent’s “To Go” kit.
Saving Toto in a Disaster – Pets are Family Too
For many seniors, particularly those who live alone, pets are just like family. When a disaster strikes, caregivers must not only think of the plan to help their parent but also the plan to help any pets – the loss of which can cause deep psychological trauma to older parents. Here are three things caregivers should do:
1. Have your parent’s pet “To Go” kit ready
In the same way caregivers are creating a quick “To Go” kit for a parent, the same needs to be done for a pet – whether the animal is a family pet or a service animal. The kit should include: a leash, possibly a carrier, a small food/water dish, enough food and extra water for the animal for three to seven days, any pet medications and vaccination records (some shelters may require proof of updated vaccinations before accepting an animal).
2. Have a pet shelter plan
Most, if not all, Red Cross emergency shelters do not allow animals (unless it is a service dog). This separation from a loved one requires a special plan to ensure the pet is well cared for until a reunion can be planned. Ask the local veterinarian about emergency shelters for pets.
Clicking your heels three times won’t always bring you home safely but planning ahead with your family and older parents for an emergency situation just may ensure you have a happy ending to any disaster.
This article was adapted from Sherri Snelling’s book, A Cast of Caregivers.