Keeping Older Americans and People with Disabilities Safe and Healthy during Emergencies

Disasters, manmade or natural can happen at anytime, anywhere, and vary in magnitude. Older adults and people with disabilities have unique and special needs during a crisis. Approximately half of those over age 65 have two or more chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. These conditions increase a person’s vulnerability during periods of time without food, water, shelter, and adequate rest. People with disabilities have some of the same needs as older adults, but they may also have a wider variety of functional limitations, sometimes requiring more supports, many of which could likely be in short supply during a crisis event.

It is critical that individuals, service providers, and communities actively engage in emergency planning. Each person has a responsibility to prepare for potential crisis and make a plan for how to respond. Providers of long-term services and supports must train staff in all emergency actions (evacuation, lock-down, shelter-in-place). Community leaders and first-responders must be prepared to support the health and safety needs of older adults and people with disabilities, engage these populations in the planning process, and—where possible—provide services and supports in integrated Functional Needs Support Shelters.

The only way to ensure the well being of older adults and people with disabilities during a crisis is through a “whole-community” approach to preparedness. For information and resources about how to support the needs of older adults and people of all ages with disabilities during an emergency, click on the links below.

Individual Preparedness: Best Practices and Resources

Older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers can take steps to prepare for emergencies. The majority of older adults and people with disabilities live in the community. Many live alone, but require long-term services and supports in order to reside in the community. By examining each person’s unique needs, it is possible to create person-centered plans that accommodate issues such as mobility limitations and the need for battery or electrically powered medical devices or durable medical equipment. Without the appropriate contingencies, these limitations could negatively impact a person during a crisis.

At a minimum, each individual (with the assistance of his or her caregiver, if necessary) should create a kit of emergency necessities. This should include medication, food, water, batteries or chargers, and any supplies that pets or service animals may need. Individuals should also talk to friends, family, and neighbors to create a support network that can help with communication, transportation, and essential care during periods of time when other community-based services and supports are not available. Most importantly, they should learn the locations of the nearest Functional Needs Support Shelters appropriate to their needs.

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Service Provider Preparedness: Best Practices and Resources

Hospitals, nursing homes, and other providers of long-term services and supports face unique obstacles during a crisis. They are frequently called upon to provide leadership during and after a disaster. And they must make response plans for the safety of their service recipients and staff, during an emergency. Those plans must include well-tested transportation procedures should an evacuation become necessary.

It is essential that all staff members know their roles and responsibilities in the service provider’s emergency response plans—especially during an evacuation. Emergency management plans should be reviewed and tested on a regular basis to build in redundancies, identify gaps, and develop strategies to mitigate any shortcomings.

Many types of providers are required to develop emergency response plan standards for licensure or certification. In addition to these requirements, collaboration with other agencies and participation in community-wide drills and exercises can further ensure that the service provider’s emergency plans are integrated with response efforts at all levels. It is also important to ensure that backup power generators are available and in working order, transportation plans are in place for evacuation, and that policies are in place for emergency communications with relatives of care recipients.

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Community Preparedness: Best Practices and Resources

Older adults and people with disabilities are frequently overlooked during the disaster planning, response, and recovery process. Emergency management planning must integrate older adults and people with disabilities of all ages—and their caregivers—into every aspect of community emergency planning, response, and recovery. They should also be included in plan development through public meetings and efforts should be undertaken to hold meetings close to public transportation and at hours when public transportation is in service. Shelters should be surveyed and supplies should be obtained to ensure that they are accessible to older adults, as well as people with disabilities and functional supports needs.

In order to do this, it is critical that officials take a “whole-community” approach when considering the needs of older adults and people with disabilities during and after a crisis. Key players include hospitals, local providers of long-term services and supports, the Area Agencies on Aging, the Centers for Independent Living, Protection & Advocacy organizations, Developmental Disability Councils, Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs, and the Aging and Disability Resource Centers. These organizations should be included in the coordination, planning, and executing of joint exercises with state and local law enforcement and first responders to increase the likelihood that all community members will be considered and protected during an emergency.

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Last Modified: 5/27/2016