By Maggie Silver
When the Cedar River flood waters began to rise in Iowa most residents were able to see the impending danger and safely evacuate their homes. But Donna, an elderly woman living in a secluded section of town is blind, and couldn’t see when her basement began to fill with water. Since she doesn’t watch TV she didn’t see or hear the warnings on the local news. When the police and fire department came out to her flooded house to rescue her she was suspicious of the men knocking on the door telling her she needed to leave.
It wasn’t until Janna Diehl, from the Hawkeye Valley Area Agency on Aging, came to talk to her that Donna realized she was in danger and needed to go. Donna was safely taken to an assisted living facility away from the threatening flood waters where she lived for a month until the damage to her home could be assessed. With the help of staff at assisted living facility Donna was able to apply for FEMA relief funds to pay for alternate housing after her home was deemed uninhabitable. Not being able to return to her home was unsettling to Donna who had already been through so much, she didn’t trust family members who wanted her to move into a FEMA trailer, but she still wanted to maintain her independence and didn’t want to stay at the assisted living facility. With Diehl’s help, Donna was able to find a duplex in a retirement community that offered her the independence she wanted, but the support of a tight-knit community should something happen.
Donna’s case is not unusual. Older adults face many more obstacles during an emergency than most people. Isolation, limited mobility, medical needs, and distrust are just a few of the factors that emergency planners must consider when responding to a disaster. Diehl works with local first responders and emergency management groups to educate them on the needs of older adults. She takes part in local exercises to test emergency plans, pretending to be the older clients she serves.
“Often times they don’t think about what they will do with people who can’t stand for hours waiting in line for food or medicine at shelters. They don’t think about what they’ll do when one of my clients refuses to go anywhere without Fluffy,” explains Diehl.
So what is Diehl’s biggest tip for helping keep older adults safe in the face of danger? Simple, be neighborly. If you have an elderly person living on your street or in your apartment complex check on them when the power goes out or when forecasters are calling for a big storm. Diehl and her husband go knocking on doors in their neighborhood before big snow storms to see if their older neighbors need anything from the grocery store. It just takes a simple act that could make all the difference.
If you have family members who are older, talk to them about what they would do in the event of a flood, power outage, or other emergency. Make sure they have a “go-bag” that includes a list of their medications and doctor’s name. Diehl mentions that often older adults don’t know their doctor’s full name, they just know them by ‘Doctor John,’ and in an emergency this can pose a serious problem. Make sure you talk to your elderly relative and other family members about where your loved one would go if they needed to leave their home and who would take them there.
September is National Preparedness Month, and during this time we encourage you to talk to your elderly neighbors and family members to make sure they have a plan in case of an emergency, big or small.
You can get more information about older adults and emergency planning here: http://www.cdc.gov/aging/emergency/