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Older adults, people with disabilities need help amid disasters

When Hurricane Ian hit the southwest coast of Florida last September, it brought with it 150 mile-an-hour winds and 12-feet of storm surge. Of the 120 people who tragically died in the storm, two-thirds were 60 or older.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that older and disabled populations are the most adversely affected in emergencies, yet the least likely to have access to emergency support.

Many older adults are isolated, living alone, hours away from a family member or caregiver. Others have chronic health conditions like diabetes and kidney failure that can pose increased risks when storms and other natural hazards disrupt regular healthcare. Power outages can cause insulin to go bad and dialysis centers to close.

Countless others live in rural areas, miles from resources and connectivity. People living with disabilities can encounter further roadblocks, such as seeking shelters that can actually accommodate their needs.

The U.S. population age 65 and over has grown nearly five times as fast as the total population over the last 100 years. As our disaster landscape continues to worsen, there is an increased urgency to be laser-focused on these populations, to ensure they survive and thrive after disasters.

But we cannot do it alone.

One older woman recently shared with one of us (FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell) the reason she called her two closest friends while sheltering from a devastating tornado in Mississippi. They maintained their three-way call until the tornado was over, knowing that if one of them lost connectivity, the others could send help. This simple act might have saved their lives.  

This kind of neighbor-to-neighbor connectedness is standard practice in emergency management. We need to expand its impact by casting a wider net and looking for new groups to bring to the table that do not normally talk about disaster preparedness together.

Organizations with significant ties to older adults can help us amplify the importance of preparedness and help us build resilience among this community and the people that serve them. We work to cultivate partnerships with many non-government organizations and faith-based groups because we know that these organizations are trusted messengers, helping their communities every day. These partnerships will make a difference in how our older adults cope with extreme heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other unexpected disasters.

Bringing caregivers into the conversation about older adult preparation is the goal of a new partnership between FEMA and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (RCI).

Caregivers play a vital role in emergencies. One of us (Jennifer Olsen) received a reminder of this when she had to evacuate her grandmother from her memory care facility in 2018, as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the North Carolina coast.

We want older adults to know they are not alone before, during and after disasters. We also want caregivers to be seen and supported as critical partners in emergency preparedness. When caregivers and older adults are empowered to work together to prepare for disasters, they are better able to overcome challenges and manage stress.

To further protect them in the face of continuing climate challenges, we need to seek out and activate more creative partnerships. Organizations that provide food, shelter, housing, and language services, in addition to nonprofits and faith-based groups, will be instrumental in deploying culturally competent information and reaching the most vulnerable in our older adult demographic. These are the people and organizations who know their needs, their fears, and, most importantly, their hopes. They can work in tandem with us to elevate the conversations about the importance of preparedness.

We need to mobilize people and resources to break down the barriers older adults and their caregivers face in surviving increasingly difficult disasters. Most importantly, we need to recognize we can all be a part of the solution.

Whether we oversee systems that support older adults or live down the hallway from someone who could benefit from additional assistance, we must acknowledge the small steps each of us can take to improve preparedness and recoveries for older adults.

As disaster seasons stretch throughout the year, we must make it a point to embrace more partners and to enlist them strategically to impart information and inform action.

Together, FEMA and RCI will model the kind of collaboration that mirrors our shared mission to enhance quality of life for older adults and their caregivers. We urge others to connect with us and join us in these efforts ahead of the summer months and peak hurricane season.

Deanne Criswell is Administrator of FEMA. Jennifer Olsen is CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.

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