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Lessons in Resilience from My Two Near-Miss Hurricane Experiences

Home environment planning, caregiving and technology — will you or your loved one come safely through the next hurricane or other disaster? What to do if you think the answer is no.

By Jamie Gold

I've been extremely lucky in life so far. In the seven years I owned a home in Tampa and the 13 years I've had my San Diego townhouse, I haven't yet been impacted by the 269 major disaster events that have occurred these last two decades. With climate change creating more intense and frequent disasters and our 65 and older population growing at its fastest rate in nearly a century, we are on a crisis collision course. How resilient are you and your loved ones?

A white car partially submerged in floodwater. Next Avenue, hurricane preparedness
A car is partially submerged in floodwaters after Tropical Storm Hilary, Aug. 20, 2023, in Cathedral City, California  |  Credit: Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images via PBS

In August 2004, Hurricane Charley was bearing down on Tampa and my then husband was out of town. It was just me and my 11-year-old stepdaughter at home. It was my first major storm and I was extremely nervous – prepared, but nervous. Just before making landfall as a Category 4, Charley turned south and slammed into Ft. Myers, missing us by 130 miles.

"Although disasters affect everyone, older adults can be at greater risk."

Fast forward 19 years and I found myself again nervously tracking a storm as Hurricane Hilary headed toward San Diego. It was the first-ever tropical storm watch for Southern California and I was completely alone this time (and two decades older at 62).

Luckily for me again, Hilary turned away, leaving our area unscathed. With the Pacific steadily warming, we may not be so fortunate next time. And we're always on guard here for wildfires and earthquakes. I keep disaster supplies on hand and have evacuation plans, but hope I never need to use either.  

Disaster Preparedness for Older Adults

"Every household should have an emergency preparedness kit, develop a plan around sheltering, evacuations, transportation, medical needs and ways to stay informed and in communication with those around them," advises Thomas Heneghan, Community Preparedness Education Program Manager for the American Red Cross.

The disaster response organization, appreciating that our age group often has distinct needs, created a Caregivers Preparedness Checklist in partnership with AARP. "Although disasters affect everyone, older adults can be at greater risk," he notes, adding that it's crucial to understand how our medical and cognitive needs may impact us in a crisis. This is also true for relatives we may be caring for.

While recognizing common crisis vulnerabilities, "it's important to plan to respond to individual needs," advises occupational therapist Sydney Marshman, whose Happy At Home Consulting practice focuses on aging in place. "Physical limitations may hinder the ability to evacuate, descend stairs into a basement, or move to another location in the home, and cognition may change how an individual responds to a disaster," she says.

"Physical limitations may hinder the ability to evacuate, descend stairs into a basement, or move to another location in the home, and cognition may change how an individual responds to a disaster."

Marshman also points out that while we expect cognitive challenges related to Alzheimer's and dementia, there are an estimated 10% to 20% of older adults living with mild cognitive impairment that can impact processing skills. Vulnerabilities can be revealed and addressed in the planning process, she notes.

"These individuals might struggle with understanding emergency instructions or maintaining critical medical routines during a crisis," warns Ryan Herd, founder and CEO of wellness technology firm Caregiver Smart Solutions. Events requiring forced relocation or extensive home repairs can disrupt their sense of safety and routine, leading to stress and discomfort, he adds.

After home environment planning, Marshman next prioritizes community considerations. "If you needed to evacuate your home, where would you go? To the home of a family member, or friend? How would you get there? Lastly, including professional services in a disaster response plan can be helpful in times of high stress and anxiety," she says.

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Marshman cautions that dealing with a crisis aftermath is also often difficult, and trusted helpers should be identified for this period. (Knowing who you'll call in advance helps avoid scammers afterward.)

Long Distance Caregiving

Nearly 95% of adults 60 and older have at least one chronic condition. Add in a disaster and you have amplified that person's difficulties, particularly when their caregiver lives miles away. Marshman stresses the need to understand how to manage chronic conditions and access disaster care before it's needed (for yourself or someone you're caring for).

"This may be solving how insulin may be refrigerated or how an oxygen concentrator may be powered in the event of a power outage."

"This may be solving how insulin may be refrigerated or how an oxygen concentrator may be powered in the event of a power outage," she explains.

You don't want to be working through these issues during a crisis. Adding backup capacity to a home can be helpful when evacuation is not required, and there may be financial support available; check with the local power company or senior agency for resources.

Technology for Resilience

Remote caregiving technologies can let family members know about potential issues on a regular basis and in an emergency, says Herd. They include sensor-driven alerts about unusual activities like falling or not eating, allowing for caregiver intervention. "After a disaster, they ensure continuous monitoring of the elder's well-being and can facilitate quick response in case of emergencies," he says.

Marshman recommends factoring contingency and maintenance planning into technology reliance, (since power could go out and communication networks become overloaded). "It may be necessary to have different types of technology if an individual is particularly isolated – such as having a device that uses cellular data and another that uses Wi-Fi," she says. "If relying on technology during disaster response, it's important to include both implementation and upkeep in the plan."

"I recommend starting with routine home maintenance, as we need an environment in good working order and dependable."

It's also important to be sensitive when introducing a technology conversation — Herd recommends this from his own experience after his father began having health issues. "Emphasize the aspect of independence and safety, assuring them that their privacy will be respected. Highlight how these technologies can offer peace of mind not just to them, but also to their family members living afar."

Caregiving technology doesn't have to be invasive, can usually be used in rentals as well as owned homes, and can foster a sense of security. If you or a loved one fall during an earthquake for example, (writes the Californian with a three story townhouse!), a sensor can alert a caregiver that there's a problem that needs immediate attention.

Home Improvement for Resilience

There are ways to make a home more resilient, increasing its safety for residents. "I recommend starting with routine home maintenance, as we need an environment in good working order and dependable," Marshman advises. "With a solid foundation (literally), we can adjust based on individual needs, such as purchasing a generator or installing a safe room."

If you're planning to remodel your home or build a new one, there are siding and roofing materials that will make it more fire resistant. There are also surfacing and landscaping solutions that can make a home more flood resistant. These plus having a backup power source can be extremely helpful in a local disaster.

Have a conversation with your design team to factor these into your plans. Building just "to code" is only intended to provide the structure's survivability for immediate evacuation. You can do better.

There are ways to make our golden years and homes more resilient in the face of large and small disasters, but they take planning. We may be unlucky when the next disaster strikes, but we can be better prepared.

Jamie Gold Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is a wellness design consultant, Mayo Clinic Certified Wellness Coach and the award-winning author of three books, including Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Given so many unprecedented crises these past few years, she updated her emergency kit and her latest book with a resilience-enhanced bonus chapter. Read More
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