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Senior Disaster Preparedness: How To Plan When You’re a Family Caregiver

Movies about fictional disasters and end-of-world scenarios find big audiences for the escapist thrills they provide. But in the real world, there’s nothing entertaining about climate change-fueled weather systems that put lives in danger. Tornados, hurricanes, typhoons, monsoons, floods, fires, ice storms and blizzards affect tens of millions of Americans each year. Extreme droughts, heat waves and cold spells pose serious dangers for millions more. Any of these events can disrupt, uproot, destroy, injure, or even kill. It’s why an adult in charge of a senior’s care and well-being should consider organizing a disaster preparedness checklist and emergency supply kit to help safely navigate whatever extreme event arises.

Be Prepared

Nobody likes thinking about the unknown. But with disasters becoming ever more frequent and severe, often striking with little warning, it’s prudent to take precautions. Being prepared is particularly important where the elderly are concerned. Older adults living alone or in assisted living facilities often have mobility, vision and hearing issues, and other underlying health conditions and medication regimens that make them vulnerable should disaster disrupt any supply chain or transportation, communication, electrical or water system.

When disaster hits, suddenly things caregivers and seniors take for granted become unavailable. Without prescription medications, fresh water, contact numbers or escape routes, the situation can turn critical. Whether the caregiver and senior shelter in place or move to safer ground, having a disaster preparedness checklist and emergency supply kit at the ready can bring peace of mind, or even save lives.

Senior Living Community Precautions

While public health departments are mandated to have general disaster plans, they often don’t address the elderly’s specific needs. Most senior living community disaster responses are limited to escorting residents to a storm shelter. Seniors, or their family, must be advocates and stewards for their own safety. Together with an adult child or other loved one, seniors need to ask management what disaster preparedness plan is in place and advocate for creating one if there isn’t. Reviewing and testing any plan is key.

What To Ask To Ensure There’s a Plan

Experts advise asking the following questions:

  • How are power outages handled? Are there backup generators and are they maintained regularly?
  • How will staff assist mobile and nonmobile residents?
  • What’s the ratio of caregivers to residents in an emergency?
  • Will extra staff be brought in to respond to the crisis?
  • How will staff communicate with family members about processes and contingencies during an emergency?

When assessing living facilities, avoid those where the staff appears overworked, stressed or frantic during normal working conditions. If they freak out then, what confidence can you have in them during a crisis?

Be Proactive and Start With These Tips

Since there’s no assurance older persons will make disaster preparations themselves, it’s up to family caregivers to take charge of this overlooked health and safety measure. Like insurance, you may never need it, but it’s invaluable to have should you ever do. Here are some tips:

  • A good place to start is to organize an easy-to-read list of family, friends, neighbors, primary care doctors, pharmacies, food pantries, as well as local human and emergency services organizations, complete with phone numbers and emails. These resources can be lifelines in the case of disaster.
    • Make sure to have duplicates of these vital contacts.
    • Post this contact list in an easy-to-see area of the senior’s living space and place a copy in an easy-to-access fireproof and waterproof container. Caregivers should retain their own copies.
    • This contact list should be updated yearly.
  • Make copies of vital documents (personal, financial) and store them in a waterproof and fireproof container.
  • Organize an emergency supply kit. It should be easily portable and include a few days’ worth of medications, nonperishable foods and water, medical devices (hearing aids and batteries, glasses or contacts, etc.), a flashlight and batteries, personal hygiene items, and chargers for cellphones. Supplies may need to be replenished or updated yearly.
  • Declutter the senior’s living space, paying particular attention to stairs, doors and windows to make sure entry and exit points are clear of obstacles and navigable.
  • Make sure any mobility assistance device, such as a walker, cane or wheelchair, is handy and operable.

Action Is the Best Policy

If during a disaster, a family caregiver is separated from a parent or grandparent by distance or infrastructure damage, they should try reaching a local emergency resource, even the police, to make a well-being check on their loved one. An adult looking in on the senior can confirm everything’s fine or respond to needed medical attention, supplies or evacuation.

Having a mapped-out and tested escape route and relocation site is important for seniors living alone who would need to flee an area before, during or after disaster. Just as important is a plan for independently and securely transporting and relocating the senior rather than leaving that to chance or to forced relocation by emergency services (city, state or military).

Seniors living in areas with a history of natural disasters may already have safety precautions down pat from previous experience. But cognitive impairments, overconfidence or plain stubbornness may make them inattentive or lax to impending danger. That’s why caregivers should conduct safety drills and cover emergency plans and kits with seniors once or twice a year to ensure everyone’s on the same page and the needed contacts and supplies are handy and updated. Some seniors may resist this as intrusive or over the top. Even with a storm bearing down, some may choose to shelter in place. Caregivers should emphasize they only want what’s best for the senior by making sure they have what they need and know what to do.

Practice runs and precautions could mean the difference between getting out of harm’s way, being prepared to ride things out, or putting one’s self at unnecessary risk due to inaction or indecision.

Additional Resources

To help, click these links for additional information and tips:

How Can Right at Home Help

Right at Home’s professionally trained caregivers provide services ranging from light housekeeping and meal preparation to hygiene care and assistance with mobility in order to help seniors age in place at home. Use our location finder to get the phone number of the office nearest you to receive a FREE in-home consultation.

Author Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The Omaha native and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Follow his work at

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