Elderly man in wheelchairOlder patients can be more vulnerable to disasters for a variety of reasons. Physical or mental impairments may make it difficult for them to care for themselves or to understand instructions. Mobility may also be an issue, with many unable to get themselves to safe areas and/or evacuation zones.

In some respects, older adults may experience fewer psychological effects of stress after a disaster compared to younger adults. Based on a lifetime of experiences, many old people may have better coping skills.

However, while older adults often have the resiliency and experience to weather a disaster, the physical strain can take an extreme toll.   If they are evacuated to a shelter, diet, cramped quarters, and limited access to medications could make them more susceptible to harm than other, younger patients.

The key to caring for elderly patients during a disaster is planning. Many facilities overlook the special needs of their elderly patients during the disaster planning phase.  Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) highlighted this fact.  Over half of the people who died as a result of the hurricane were over the age of 75.  Almost 70 of those fatalities were elderly nursing home patients – half of those were at one nursing home overrun by flood waters.

So what are some steps you can take to reduce the vulnerability of your older patients during time of crisis?  There are several.    

1)      During the disaster planning phase:

  1. Keep your patients’ important items in a central location so that (in the event of an evacuation) those items can be taken with the patient. This includes medical records, change of clothes, a 2 week supply of medications as well as a list of medical conditions that can be presented to emergency staff as necessary.
  2. Collect any information about available family and friends who may be living close by.  During disasters, family members can be separated from each other…the stress of which can cause your patient anxiety, depression, insomnia and memory impairment.
  3. Train your staff and have updated and detailed emergency procedures put into place.  If disaster comes to your facility, know evacuation routes, where to access an adequate supply of drinking water and fuel for generators.
  4. Work with government agencies and other nonprofit organizations (i.e. Red Cross) to provide…

i.      … a separate, secure space for the elderly in shelters where medical services can be provided by doctors, gerontological social workers, phlebotomists, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals

ii.      …nutritious meals that are appropriate for chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol

2)      During the actual disaster:

  1. Try to keep fragile patients with their caregivers to promote a sense of safety and feelings of hope.
  2. Have caregivers continuously provide information and offer reassurance.

3)      Once the immediate danger has passed, facilities and caregivers should

  1. Assist the elderly patients re-establish their feelings of security, stability and safety.  Reunite them with their regular caregivers and quickly try to reestablish a sense of normalcy within your facility.
  2. Be an advocate for the patient’s health and mental health needs.  Train staff on the signs of depression and anxiety and how to help them express their feelings.

No location is the United States is immune from natural disasters or acts of terror.  The question for facility directors is not if it will happen, but when it will happen.  Preparation is key.  Snelling Medical Professionals are here to help.  Our website contains articles and links to help you begin the process of preparing your facility for the next disaster.  We would like to hear from you.  Send your thoughts and questions to us and let’s share knowledge.