Many of us experience challenges with change.  Especially change that we don’t initiate!  It is incredibly taxing, however, when change requires that we have to move out of familiar places and adapt to circumstances and living conditions that are not of our own choosing.  We see this happening more and more as climate change impacts how and where we live.

Just in the last 10 years, Americans have had to adjust to an increased frequency of weather-related events that seem to be more intense than most of us can recall.  For example, people in Florida, the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard have had to cope with hurricanes, flooding, damage from high winds, coastal erosion from higher than normal wave action, and intense thunder and snow storms.

billion-dollar-disasters-collageOut here in the West, aquifers are depleted due to overuse of water and lack of rain to replenish them.  Places that were homesteaded back in the 1800’s are in the path of wildfires than cannot be contained, forever changing landscapes, lifestyles, and the lives of people and animals who have lived there for generations.  Right now in Northern California drought has contributed to wildfires that are forcing evacuations of thousands of families.

Any of us, when faced with one or more of these environmental threats, might be expected to have difficulty dealing with physical, emotional, psychological, and economic consequences.  But it is especially difficult for aging adults.

There are three phases to every disaster – waiting for the disaster to happen, dealing with the disaster while it is going on, and post-disaster recovery.  Many natural disasters may have sufficient warning so that people can get to a safer location.  Some disasters of course, have little or no warning.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and snow storms are usually well tracked and people have time to get out of harm’s way, if they have the choice.

People frequently experience high levels of stress during the event, trying to decide whether to leave or stay.  Some may not have the means to leave or may feel they would rather risk staying in order to protect what they cherish.  There are consequences to these decisions, and not all of them turn out for the best.

ARC_Older AdultPost-recovery can be particularly challenging for elders who have special needs or experience cognitive impairment.  Routines that are essential for maintaining predictability are disrupted and returning to a familiar place may not happen for days or weeks, or in some cases, ever.  The psychological and emotional toll of having to re-build after losing everything or being displaced can result in loss of functioning, increased illness, and emotional patterns of sadness, crying, and despair.

Restoring some modicum of predictability is essential no matter how old we are.  Regularly scheduled mealtimes, getting together with a group on a regular basis, and going for a walk every day are all examples of how routine can help support recovery.

What is remarkable to me is how resilient most elders are.  Some of this may come from having experienced loss across the lifespan and having learned how to pick up and start over again.  Many elders draw on friendship, faith, and connection with family to help sustain them through these inevitable losses that we must deal with as we age.

There are many excellent resources available to help with disaster planning.  One that I am particularly fond of is the American Red Cross’ Disaster Preparedness for Seniors .  My husband worked for the American Red Cross for many years and went on many a disaster as a Red Cross professional.  I have also volunteered over the years, and have come away with a firm belief that people really do care for one another and have tremendous capacity for helping each other in times of stress.

Here are some of the key things we learned over the years.

  • If you are in harm’s way, get out sooner rather than waiting.
  • Have a pre-determined location identified where you can meet up with family members and/or friends if you are not able to leave your location together.
  • Always make sure your car has gas in it.
  • Make sure your mobile phone is charged.
  • Keep copies of important papers such as marriage licenses, insurance documents, passports, phone numbers, etc.,  in a waterproof container that can be easily grabbed if you need to leave quickly.
  • Keep copies of prescriptions, including the name of medications, dosage, prescriber’s name, and phone number of pharmacy where you get your prescriptions filled.  If it is a mail order prescription provider, make sure you have their email address and/or phone number.
  • Keep a couple of six packs of bottled water on hand.
  • Keep extra batteries, matches, and a sturdy pair of shoes in a location that is easily accessed and can be easily be grabbed if you need to leave quickly.
  • Identify a person (family member or friend) who is out of state who can act as your central clearing house.  Family members should know to call this person and check-in with status updates.  This contact person can then keep track of who is OK and who isn’t when your mobile phone runs out of juice.

Some disasters are over in a few days.  Others may last weeks, months, even years.  To shelter in place, you should plan on food, water, medicine, and clothing for at least three days.  If you need to move from where you are, you should plan on taking at least two weeks of supplies.

Hurricane Harvey rescue Credit: Courtesy Andrew WhiteDon’t forget your pets!  Red Cross shelters cannot take your pets.  Local animal shelters, veterinarians, and animal rescue groups often step in to care for your animals until you can safely care for them again.  Many pets become separated from their owners, causing high levels of stress, fear, and in some cases injury to animals and owners alike.  Having your pet tagged, chipped, and up to date on their shots will go a long way in helping all of you to manage the disaster better.

If you have poor vision, poor hearing, or poor mobility, you are at even higher risk in a disaster.  Keep an extra pair of glasses, additional hearing aid batteries, and mobility equipment on hand.  Wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and/or crutches may or may not be available in the first few days of a disaster.

Stay hopeful.  Someone will be there to hold your hand and help you get back on your feet.

Red CrossThanks for reading.

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