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Let’s Not Discount the Older Adults in Times of Natural Disasters, Why Don’t We…
By: Mary Lucas & Lily Carlon
The past several months in Sonoma County have been stressful, emotional, and incredibly hard for many families and individuals. Whether you were personally affected by the North Bay fires or know someone who was, this natural disaster has touched all of us in one way or another. After browsing through many news channels, articles, and Facebook posts, one common theme that kept reappearing was how the aging population was practically left to fend for themselves during evacuations. In Sonoma County, there were a handful of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and senior trailer parks that burned down. Among all of the people identified by Sonoma and Napa county officials, the average age of those who died was 79 (Bermudez). With that being said, the elderly population suffered the most deaths during these fires because they were not able to escape due to the time they were given, individual disabilities, not having the right assistance from caretakers, or they were simply not woken up.
In a post fire article, an interview was conducted with an employee from a senior living community in Oakmont, the employee claimed that “management did not have an evacuation plan in place, did not heed early signs that a fire was closing in, and acted too late to get its senior citizens safely out of the center before flames got too close and smoke too thick, resulting in some being left behind” (Sacks). This happening is completely unacceptable and should not have happened. The aging population is just as important as the rest of the community and should be getting all the assistance they need during a natural disaster. There was obviously not enough planning and protocol in place to help during the evacuations. Strategic planning for how to assist and care for the aging population during natural disasters is crucial.
A nationwide survey was administered a few years ago to determine natural disaster overall preparedness levels among older United States adults, the results were astounding. “Only 34.3% reported participating in an educational program or reading materials about disaster preparation. Nearly 15% reported using electrically powered medical devices that might be at risk in a power outage. The substantial problems discovered are remediable and require attention in certain sectors of society”(Al-Rousan). This survey highlighted that, if a natural disaster were to strike, a large percentage of older adults would not be prepared. If the power were to go out, people that use electrically powered medical devices would run into big trouble.
The brief protocol and planning that is in place currently for when disaster strikes is flawed because the personnel actually working to evacuate and provide shelter are not given baseline information on the older adults they will be assisting. Therefore, they have no idea how many adults will have a disability or require special equipment (Ford). If the people and organizations assisting don’t know how many people need help or how many people are disabled, it is hard to know how much assistance is needed. In the case of the North Bay Wildfires, the ratio of help to senior citizens was not enough. There were way more people needing assistance than there were people assisting. This caused problems with how efficiently evacuations happened as well as how much assistance was provided in shelters post evacuations.
Older adults are uniquely vulnerable in the case of natural disasters. They might not be able to move quickly enough to a safe location or they might not have immediate cell phone access to use to call for help in moments of natural disasters. And, due to this, their momentary life becomes stagnate, and the disaster strikes them quicker than they have time to blink. Try picturing yourself in that same position. So, regardless of age, one would want to feel reassured if he or she were to experience a natural disaster, right?
But, the missing pieces to the issue with older adults and their experiences in natural disasters is not having proper protocol in use and tangible resources to obtain. It is apparent that this requires immediate resolution within each state.
Steps need to be taken to ensure that older adults have no special reason to worry during a natural disaster – whether they are residing in a nursing home or their own home during that time. Older adults regularly suffer high death rates when natural disasters occur. An example of this would be from Hurricane Katrina: “given the resilience and heterogeneity of the population of older adults, they were among those most vulnerable of Hurricane Katrina. Roughly, 73% of the storm-related deaths in the New Orleans area were citizens 60 years and older, whereas older adults were 15% of the New Orleans population” (Gibson, 2006).
In light of the vulnerability of older adults in times of natural disaster, we believe that there should be a public policy of some sort in place to ensure that all older adults are not to be ignored, and to be taken care of in the time of a natural disaster. The benefit behind having a public policy is that no older adult will be left unassisted.
Aside from a public policy solution, another step would be community outreach. For example, neighborhoods could monitor their vulnerable members in a similar way like that of a neighborhood crime watch. Older adults need interaction to keep stimulated, so this would be a perfect incorporation into their lives. Like neighborhood crime-watches, neighbors could check on the older adults living close by.
All programs, whether it is community-based or via a website, should be created for older adults, family members, caregivers to utilize so they that are aware of what could be done in case of a natural disaster.
Another idea would be is to provide cell phones to older adults. Based on an article from the The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, “It is possible that technologies could be developed and implemented that would serve as a “backup” in cases of emergencies or natural disasters and would help people to locate safe places, basic supplies, and other people. Smartphones could be designed to have a “disaster mode” in which nonessential features are turned off to conserve battery life, and other features (such as geographical positioning, weather, and public service announcements) are made more prominent” (Backonja).
With all of this said, old age is just a category; it’s the human life that matters. Surviving through natural disasters is vital for all individuals, regardless of one’s age. Let’s safeguard the lives of all people because every individual out there deserves the assistance and care they need.
Backonja, Uba, Hall1, Amanda K , and Thielke, Stephen,, “Older Adults’ Current and
Potential Uses of Information Technologies in a Changing World: A Theoretical Perspective”,, US : Sage Publications, Vol 80(1), Dec, 2014. pp. 41-63
Henderson, Tammy L. and Hildreth, Gladys, Hildreth, “Experiences in the Face of Disasters:
Children, Teachers, Older Adults, and Families”
McGuire, Lisa C., et al. “Natural Disasters and Older US Adults with Disabilities: Implications
for Evacuation.” Disasters, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 14 Mar. 2007, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7717.2007.00339.x/full.
NBC Bay Area and Associated Press, “Majority of Northern California Fire Victims Were Senior
Citizens”, NBC News, 19 Oct. 2017
Rousan, Tala M, et al. Preparedness for Natural Disasters Among Older US Adults: A
Nationwide Survey. Mar. 2014, web.b.ebscohost.com.sonoma.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=248952f3-c45d-42ea-b3cd-f3f3dc920f1b%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=94408124&db=s3h.
Sacks, Brianna. “Workers Say A California Retirement Community Left Its Elderly Residents
Behind During The Fire.” BuzzFeed,
Tchekmedyian, Alene, and Esmeralda Bermudez. “California Firestorm Takes Deadly Toll on
Elderly; Average Age of Victims Identified so Far Is 79.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct. 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-norcal-fires-elderly-20171012-story.html.
Woodrow, Melanie, “Dozens of senior citizens may have been left by staff at burning Varenna
Oakmont Senior Living Community”, ABC News, 13 Oct. 2017