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Senior Health

Helping Older Adults Be Prepared

Preparedness is important for people of any age experiencing health or functional challenges that make them increasingly vulnerable during an emergency. Whether a crisis situation (e.g., tornado) or a probable event (e.g., occasional power outage), "Be Prepared" is more than a Boy Scout motto. Being prepared and knowing what to do in an emergency is essential for people?s safety and well-being. Do you remember the heat wave in the summer of 1995 when over 700 Chicagoans died over a one-week period? According to an article in USA Today, many of the deaths could have been prevented. At the time, Chicago did not have an extensive disaster preparedness plan for heat emergencies similar to the plans in place for severe weather events like blizzards and floods.

For whatever reasons, people may put off thinking about or planning for what to do in an emergency until faced with such a situation, thus increasing the risk for negative outcomes. Even when prepared for an emergency situation, the event itself causes stress that may interfere with thinking, judgment and decision making.

Just imagine the level of anxiety that emergency situations may create for an older person living alone with health problems such as arthritis, chronic heart disease or having limited mobility and needing an assistive device. Having plans for what to do in an emergency builds the confidence many older adults need to cope and to maintain their safety and security despite an unpredictable event.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Director for Coordinating the Office for Terrorism Preparedness and

Emergency Response emphasized the need for older adults to "be prepared" and commented on the role of professionals: "health care and service providers should include preparedness education in conjunction with routine care and self-management education for older adults and other persons with chronic disease and their families and caregivers."

Part of the responsibility of health care and social services professionals is to routinely discuss what to do in a medical emergency. During this discussion include assessment questions focused on whether the older person has a plan for environmental emergencies, as well. The following questions reflect emergencies readiness tips developed by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services 4 and can assist professionals, older adults and their family members in developing a personal emergency preparedness plan.

Three Preparedness Assessment Questions:

1. What would you do to maintain your safety in the event of a power outage or severe weather?
2. What supplies do you have on hand to help you survive until power is restored or help arrives?
3. How would you meet your health/medical and medications needs in the event of a disaster?

If this brief assessment indicates that an older adult has not considered emergency preparedness and does not have a plan in place, it is essential to provide information and resources focused on safety and security during emergencies. Many resources are available to assist people in developing a personalized plan for emergencies. The Administration on Aging recommends that all older adults and family caregivers have a readiness plan that includes:

1. Knowing the basic facts. Learn about general risks and conditions that are specific to your region/community. Also, know local contact numbers, how to turn off gas and electricity, etc.

2. Having emergency supplies ready and immediately available. This includes having a supply of food, water, medications and personal items needed for survival.

3. Personalizing a plan. Identify and address specific individual needs such as having a spare pair of glasses, extra hearing aid batteries, refrigeration for medication, etc.

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Last Reviewed: Jun 08, 2010

Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN
Associate Professor Emerita
Associate Director of the
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati