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Natural Disasters and Seniors: <br> How to Protect Older Adults

07/24/2013 05:17 EDT | Updated 09/23/2013 05:12 EDT
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The recent floods in Calgary caught people by surprise. The water came quickly, and although many Calgarians were on alert to leave, when the evacuation order was finally issued, speed was of the essence.

One of the 26 Calgary communities that had to be evacuated was Bridgeland, near the Bow River. For over 50 years, the area has been home to lower-income Calgary seniors in affordable housing provided by Silvera for Seniors. When the evacuation order was issued for Bridgeland, it meant that almost 600 seniors needed to leave the area in a hurry.

It's important to remember that some segments of the population -- children, disabled people and seniors -- are at heightened risk during emergencies. Indeed, the only tragic death from the floods in Calgary was a senior, 83-year-old Lorraine Gerlitz. Another in High River, Alberta was a female lawyer with cerebral palsy, Jacqui Brocklebank.

The seniors at Silvera in Bridgeland were very lucky -- the flood water did not reach our communities, and there was only ground water back-up. But they were still evacuated from the facilities, their homes, and lost core services for several days.

Here are some of the lessons we learned from this crisis, and a list of what seniors who live independently or in supported residences -- and the families and agencies who support them -- can do to better prepare for an emergency or disaster:

Five things seniors can do to prepare for an emergency:

  1. Keep a record of medical conditions, allergies and current medications with you at all times, if possible. Note the name and contact numbers for your usual pharmacy and doctors in case you need to renew a prescription in a hurry.
  2. Keep all of your current medications and an overnight toiletries bag together for ease of collection and quick transport. Same goes for any essential medical equipment.
  3. Make a plan of action, and discuss it with your emergency contacts, for what to do in case of an urgent situation; include back up plans, such as determining a safe place to meet up should you be separated or out of communication. Keep an address book with your emergency contacts handy.
  4. Make sure your home or residence has an 'emergency kit' which contains 72 hours worth of non-perishable food, water, can opener, flashlight and back up batteries, hearing aids and batteries, incontinence products, battery-powered radio, copies of important documents and a first aid kit.
  5. Consult Canada's Public Health Agency, which lists a number of helpful resources on emergency preparedness.

Five things seniors' organizations can do to better prepare seniors for an emergency:

  1. Reach out to new and existing partners and ask for help in case of an evacuation. Ensure that you look for appropriate alternate accommodation that can address seniors' specific needs if they are frail and need extra supports, as evacuation centres are not often appropriate for longer-term stays.
  2. Keep an up-to-date contact list of service partners in a readily available, central and virtual location
  3. Practice, practice, practice - it is far easier to evacuate during an emergency if evacuation drills are part of your regular planning and operations.
  4. Ensure that staff contact information is up-to-date and easily accessible to those who need it. A centralized and web-based timetable and staff schedule is an excellent idea to keep everyone synchronized and in the right place at the right time. Use new social media technologies (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to help keep everyone updated.
  5. Ensure residents' emergency contact information is updated regularly, as details can change often.

We also learned throughout this crisis that although many of our seniors are in poorer health and need extra supports, the majority faced this crisis with resilience and grit. When faced with monumental challenges, they just pushed through it. Seniors are not done living yet, and they have a wealth of experience to share with us all.

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