In Case of Emergency: How Will You Get Your Loved One to Safety?
4 steps to helping an elderly, sick or disabled person survive a disaster
When Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago, elderly people made up more than 70 percent of the nearly 2,000 fatalities but only 15 percent of the population of New Orleans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
All kinds of disasters — from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks to flu pandemics — disproportionately affect older adults, especially those with a disability or chronic health problem, according to the CDC.
The good news is you can work ahead of time to put an emergency plan in place for your loved one. Here are four steps to take.
1. Make an emergency supply kit. In the event of a disaster, rescue workers can’t reach everyone right away, so it’s important to have some key supplies, including food, water and medication, set aside to tide the person over.
In its Disaster Preparedness for Seniors by Seniors guide, the American Red Cross offers a complete list of items that should be in an emergency kit. Items include a gallon of water per person per day, canned or dried food, a flashlight with spare batteries and bulbs, a first aid kit and a seven-day supply of medications. Consider stashing the most important items in a bag on wheels for easy transport in case the person needs to evacuate.
Label the kit and also the person’s medical equipment, including wheelchairs and walkers, with their name, address, home and cell number. Check the kit twice a year, replacing any expired medications, food or dead batteries.
2. Create a support network. If you don’t live with your loved one, identify a few nearby friends, neighbors or relatives who can check on her in case of an emergency. Give them a key to the home and tell them where important papers and emergency supplies are kept.
3. Put an evacuation plan in place. Hold a family meeting to create a personalized disaster plan, which should include specifics around how the person will learn about the emergency, how he will get out of his home and the area and what kind of assistance he may need to in order to evacuate. Consider health problems or special needs, such as impairments with cognition, hearing, mobility, speech or vision. For example:
- Post emergency contact phone numbers in large-print type in a highly visible area of the home. Include the phone number for an out-of-town emergency contact in case it’s impossible to make local calls after a disaster.
- If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease, register her with the MedicAlert + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program. You’ll receive a medical alert bracelet or pendant and, if the person goes missing, you can call a 24-hour emergency helpline.
- For seniors who don’t drive, check with neighbors who could drive them and with local officials — such as the city or county emergency management agency or fire department — to see how people without transportation should evacuate.
- Choose escape routes from the home and, if necessary, make sure they’re wheelchair accessible.
- If your loved one is in a nursing home, ask how and where residents are transported in a disaster. Find out whether family members are contacted and given the option to pick up the resident in an emergency.
- Check with the state health department to see if a Special Needs Shelter (SNS) opens during emergencies where your loved one lives. The CDC says they tend to open earlier than other shelters and are often staffed with medical personnel. However, your loved one must bring his own medications, medical equipment, bedding and food. Because of this, SNSs should be considered a last resort for people who can’t stay with friends or relatives elsewhere.
4. Make a power backup plan for medical equipment. The life of an elderly, disabled or ill person might depend on medical equipment — such as a ventilator, suction machine or home dialysis equipment — powered by batteries or electricity. It’s vital to create an emergency power backup plan in case power goes out, according to the Pacific ADA Center, a regional center dedicated to serving the needs of Americans with disabilities. Here’s what to do:
- Pick a backup power source. Check with the manufacturer of the equipment — and the instructions that came with it — as well as the local power company about options for alternative sources of power, such as marine batteries or a gas- or propane-fueled generator. Choose and set up a backup power source, and test it regularly to make sure it’s working. If your equipment uses rechargeable batteries, figure out how you’d charge batteries if you don’t have power. For example, you might be able to use a device that plugs into an outlet on a car.
- Keep manual equipment handy. If there’s a manual alternative to power medical equipment, keep one on hand for emergencies. For example, power wheelchair users should keep a manual wheelchair. Ventilator users should have a resuscitation bag and mask for manual ventilation.
- Alert local officials. Give local police and fire departments the address of your loved one and let them know she’s dependent on power. Ask if they have generators that can be used as backup for your backup, in case that fails. (Check to see if neighbors have generators, too.)
- Connect with utility companies. Call power and water providers to ask if they keep a list of customers eligible for priority reconnection after an outage. If they do, get your loved one on the list. (But remember, you still need backup power.)
- Talk to medical providers about emergency planning. Dialysis patients and others who depend on regular medical treatments should find out where they’d get treatment if their provider were forced to close after a disaster.
Follow these steps, and you’ll greatly increase the chances of keeping your loved one safe if disaster strikes.