Natural disasters are, thankfully, rare events in the US. Nevertheless, the Atlantic coast of the U.S. experiences two to three major hurricanes per year. Each natural disaster provides opportunities for health professionals to learn how to target resources in such a way that especially vulnerable populations receive aid in a timely manner.
Planners learned a substantial amount of helpful information in the wake of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricane events, particularly Hurricane Katrina. One major finding was that seniors suffered disproportionately from the effects of the flooding that followed Katrina. According to the Gerontological Society of America, three quarters of the people who died as a result of Katrina were older than 60. Investigators also discovered that, for evacuees arriving at the Houston Astrodome, there was no mechanism in place to triage elders according to their specific needs.
…Twice a child
Following a natural disaster, seniors are considered a vulnerable population in much the same way as children. Like children, the frail elderly are often unable to advocate for their own interests because of physical impairments, cognitive limitations, or a combination of the two. Unlike a child however, it is not certain that an elderly person can easily access the support of a competent adult. Many seniors are perfectly capable of caring for themselves under normal circumstances, but when disaster strikes, some find themselves cut off from their usual supports, placing them at higher risk.
Access to medication is a major priority for seniors. The average senior living at home takes five prescriptions. If she is living in a nursing home, the average number rises to seven. In the event of a natural disaster, sudden loss of access to pharmacies can severely jeopardize a senior’s life. For seniors who require supplemental oxygen or other electrical devices, loss of power can be a life-threatening event.
With these risks in mind, the American Red Cross has developed resources to help families create disaster plans for seniors. Among other suggestions, the Red Cross recommends that seniors keep at least a 7-day supply of medication ready in a disaster kit. Development of emergency kits with supplementary medication requires the cooperation of medical personnel. It is not enough to simply ask for extra prescriptions: the senior’s physician must participate actively in creation of the kit.
A tale of two hurricanes
No two disasters are alike. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the holes in the disaster preparedness of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East coast in 2012, provided some novel insights into the needs of seniors following natural disasters.
Like Katrina, Sandy was disproportionately cruel to seniors. Of the 44 New Yorkers who died because of the storm, 31 were 55-years-old and older. The majority of these died of drowning in their own homes.
Seniors are a diverse community
But Hurricane Sandy taught us that not all senior citizens are equally vulnerable. Some, in fact, weathered the storm quite well. Many provided life-saving aid to their more vulnerable neighbors. Though the elderly might not enjoy the same access to electronic means of social networking as their younger neighbors, they nevertheless possess their own social networks, and tend to activate them in disasters. Many of them are old enough to have lived through prior disasters, and have learned from those experiences. No less important is the role of wealth. Seniors with greater financial resources in general fared better than their impoverished neighbors.
Following Sandy, the Red Cross and others realized that to help seniors during disasters it is best to ask seniors themselves for advice. It turns out that seniors were a great source of aid to their fellow seniors during the storm, and they served as a font of wisdom in the storm’s aftermath. As for 21st century means of social networking, it turns out that seniors are less technophobic than ever. Ever larger numbers of seniors are embracing digital means of communication. As the population ages, the proportion of highly-connected seniors is likely to increase. This connectedness promises to save ever more elderly lives when the next disaster strikes.