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How to Prepare Loved Ones for Severe Weather and Emergencies

What you can do to help ensure their safety and care


Floods, tornados, forest fires and hurricanes are equal-opportunity disasters that strike young and old alike.

Or are they?

Not according to Dr. Samir K. Sinha, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and director of geriatrics for Toronto’s Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto. He says vulnerable older adults are disproportionately likely to suffer in natural disasters, in large part because they are more likely to face sensory, cognitive or mobility disabilities, social isolation and financial challenges.

Sinha is a co-chair of the Emergency/Disaster Preparedness for Older Adults project, an initiative by the American Red Cross and the American Academy of Nursing. The goal of the project is to help reduce the impact of disaster on older Americans. This summer, the group working on the project plans to publish a set of 25 evidence-based recommendations targeting everyone from health care professionals to policymakers to caregivers.

But you don’t have to wait until the report appears to help your older loved ones prepare for an emergency. Here are four steps to do it:

Four Steps for Planning Ahead

1. Know the Risks. The first step is to know what risks your loved ones could face, says Jim Judge, emergency medical director for Volusia County, Fla., and a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. “The more you understand about the hazards that can affect your area, the more you can plan and prepare,” he says. “One of the best ways to find out what your vulnerabilities are is to reach out to your local emergency manager.”

And when risk becomes reality, you need to stay informed. Experts recommend having a weather radio that receives National Weather Service alerts. The best of these use Specific Area Message Encoding, which lets you program your county, parish, city or marine area into the radio to receive localized notifications. Some weather radios also have integrated strobe lights and bed shakers for people with hearing impairments. (See the Administration for Community Living’s AbleData website for options.)

If your loved one lives in another community, you can still receive alerts. The Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offer free iOS and Android apps that let you sign up for alerts from anywhere in the country. The apps also offer preparedness information and, in FEMA’s case, shelter locations.

2. Build a Kit. Pull together the food, water and other supplies — such as flashlights and a first aid kit — you and/or your loved one would need in an emergency. The goal is to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. You can find a list of important items at the Ready.gov website.

For your older loved one, pay particular attention to health-related items, including glasses or contacts (along with contact solution), a three-day supply of medicine and other necessities, such as a walker, oxygen tank or spare hearing-aid batteries. If your loved one is diabetic or has other special dietary needs, be sure to take those into account. An emergency shelter may not have appropriate food available.

Sinha says many emergency preparedness guides omit important information for people with disabilities. “There’s a lot of unmet needs and unrecognized issues that don’t make it into standard texts,” Sinha says. “The standard guide works well for the majority of Americans, but it doesn’t really work well for those who are particularly vulnerable.”

3. Create a Plan. Draw up a list of contacts and designate someone to check on your loved one during an emergency. Make a plan for where he or she should go if severe weather strikes and what to do if evacuation is necessary. Also, find out about local emergency agencies and other groups that could provide help, if needed. Make sure your loved one has this information at the ready.

Create a care plan that details your loved one’s health conditions, medications, advanced directives and other wishes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a handy care plan template on its website.

The CDC also recommends having this kind of documentation along with the care plan:

  • Contact information for family members, doctors, pharmacies and/or caregivers
  • List of allergies to food or medicines
  • Copies of medical insurance cards
  • Copies of a photo ID
  • Durable power of attorney and/or medical power of attorney documents, as appropriate

You and your loved one should keep a copy of the care plan, and it’s a good idea to keep one in the emergency kit, ideally in something waterproof.

4. Get Registered. Many communities maintain voluntary registries of residents who have special needs, functional challenges or who lack transportation. In the event of a disaster, local officials can check on those people and move them to designated special-needs shelters if necessary. (There’s no guarantee, however, so people should still be prepared to shelter in place.)

“We have a mass notification system; every individual that registers with us is plugged into that,” says Judge. “And a message is not just going to go to the individuals that are registered. The caregiver’s going to get that as well.”

Sinha says Toronto’s home-care registry paid off several years ago during an ice storm. “We were able to use our data systems to quickly pinpoint who were the ones we needed to call and visit first,” he says. “We didn’t have a single death because of that.”

Of course, if your loved one lives in a senior-living facility, much of the planning is out of your hands. These facilities are required to have emergency procedures and emergency power plans. If you have concerns, Judge recommends asking the staff to show you their plans. “They will know right away that they have an educated consumer, and it’ll keep them on their toes,” he says.

And keeping them on their toes may be the best way to keep your loved one safe in a weather emergency.

By Mark Ray
Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

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