Emergency Preparedness for Older Adults: Stay Prepared, Stay Safe

Nov 30, 2023
Fact Checked
Equip yourself with the essential knowledge and actionable steps to navigate emergencies confidently, tailored specifically for the unique needs of older adults.

Key Takeaways

Emergencies can strike anytime, and the impact can be particularly challenging as we age. In the United States, 119 natural disasters occurred in 2022, emphasizing the critical need for emergency preparedness. [1]Statista Research Department. Number of Natural Disasters in the United States in 2022, by Type. Aug. 22, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.statista.com/statistics/216819/natural-disasters-in-the-united-states/

While emergencies can be particularly challenging for older adults due to unique health and mobility issues, knowing the risks in your specific area is essential no matter what age you are.

Our Reviews Team created this comprehensive guide to empower you with actionable steps for effective emergency preparedness, including accessing timely alerts, building a robust support network, and creating a tailored emergency kit. We also included considerations for people with sensory impairments, service animals, and specific chronic diseases.

Understanding older adult emergency preparedness

Emergencies can be daunting for anyone, but as we age, we face additional challenges that can make these situations even more dangerous. Being prepared isn’t just about having supplies, it’s about understanding your unique needs and potential challenges, including:

To ensure you’re prepared, here are some action steps you can take:

  1. Self-assessment: Take note of your physical limitations and medical needs. Can you walk long distances, or do you require medical equipment? Do you require daily medication?
  2. Consult your doctor: Discuss your findings with your health care provider to identify potential solutions and accommodations you can arrange in advance.

Considerations for hearing and visual impairments

Hearing and visual challenges can significantly impact your ability to respond to emergencies. According to data from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, many older adults may not actively treat or seek help for their hearing loss. [2]National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Quick Statistics About Hearing. March 25, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-hearing

“​​Many older adults don’t recognize hearing loss as an issue because the loss is so gradual,” said Christopher Norman, a geriatric nurse practitioner based in New York. “According to the American Speech and Hearing Association, it’s important to have a hearing screening every three years after the age of 50.”

Research shows about 25% of adults over age 65 have impaired hearing, which increases to 50% after age 75. [3]Killeen, Olivia J., et al. JAMA Ophthalmology. Jan. 12, 2023. Population Prevalence of Vision Impairment in US Adults 71 Years and Older: The National Health and Aging Trends Study. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaophthalmology/article-abstract/2800246 Of those over 70 with hearing loss, less than 30% have used hearing aids. [2]National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Quick Statistics About Hearing. March 25, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-hearing Similarly, a recent study found nearly 28% of U.S. adults over 71 had vision impairment, increasing the risk of injury during emergencies. [3]Killeen, Olivia J., et al. JAMA Ophthalmology. Jan. 12, 2023. Population Prevalence of Vision Impairment in US Adults 71 Years and Older: The National Health and Aging Trends Study. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaophthalmology/article-abstract/2800246

Consider whether you have these impairments:

Action steps to take:

  1. Self-assessment: Evaluate your hearing and vision capabilities. Do you find it hard to hear alarms or have difficulty reading small print? Is your eyeglass prescription up-to-date? Are your hearing aids in good working order?
  2. Consult a doctor: If you’ve never addressed your hearing or vision loss, it may be a good time to seek diagnoses and treatments, such as hearing aids and glasses.
  3. Adaptive tools: Consider investing in specialized alarms and emergency equipment designed for people with sensory impairments. Mobile apps are an accessible technology that can also inform you of emergencies, keep details in order, and track your location. Research and get to know the best apps for your needs. [4]Zitelli, Lori and Mormer, Elaine. Seminars in Hearing. Dec. 16, 2020. Smartphones and Hearing Loss: There’s an App for That! Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7744170/

The role of stress in emergency planning

Stress is an inevitable consequence of emergencies and can aggravate existing health conditions, making it even more challenging to respond effectively.

Elevated stress levels can:

Why planning is crucial

Create an emergency plan

In an emergency, having a well-planned evacuation route can be a lifesaver. This section guides you through the steps to research and chart your evacuation routes for different types of disasters, ensuring you’re prepared when it matters most.

Understand the risk of disaster

Knowing the types of disasters most likely to affect your area is crucial for effective emergency preparedness. The most common emergencies include hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, severe storms, and public health crises. [5]NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters. 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions/ According to the American Red Cross, everyone should prepare for floods, heat waves, power outages, thunderstorms, winter storms, and CBRNEs (chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear emergencies), regardless of location. [6]American Red Cross. Common Natural Disasters Across US. Found on the internet at https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/common-natural-disasters-across-us.html#detail=everyone

Action steps to take:

  1. Research local disaster history and consult your community resources. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a local search page, which allows you to access information about past declared disasters, emergency response resources, and disaster recovery centers specific to your area. [7]Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Search Your Location. July 25, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fema.gov/locations
  2. Speak with local authorities and visit your state’s or city’s emergency management website.
  3. Create your own disaster/emergency plan. You can download a Family Disaster Plan from the American Red Cross.

Access emergency alerts

Staying informed is vital during emergencies. Knowing how to access and interpret emergency alerts can significantly affect your safety.

How to access alerts

Interpreting alerts

For those with hearing or visual impairments

Download our State-by-State Emergency Preparedness Guide below to stay informed.

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Build a support network

A support network is not only comforting, it can be a lifeline in emergencies. Here’s how to build and maintain a network of friends and family who can assist you during emergencies:

  1. Identify key contacts: Make a list of friends, family members, fellow church members, and neighbors who live nearby and can assist you in an emergency. Confirm with each their agreement to be available in an emergency.
  2. Establish roles: Clearly define what role each person will play. For example, one person could be responsible for helping you evacuate, while another could be in charge of checking on you regularly.
  3. Set up multiple communication methods: Relying on a single form of communication can be risky. Here are some options:
    1. Cellphone: Keep it fully charged
    2. Spare cellphone: Keep a basic, fully charged backup phone
    3. HAM radio: Useful when cell networks are down
  1. Establish regular check-ins: A routine for regular check-ins with your support network keeps everyone informed and ensures your emergency plans remain up-to-date.
  2. Conduct emergency drills: Occasional drills with your support network will ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.

Create your emergency kit

An emergency kit is your go-to resource when disaster strikes. Tailoring it to your specific needs and the types of emergencies you’re likely to encounter is essential. The first step is to plan for two scenarios: evacuating or sheltering in place for two weeks.

Create a kit for each:

Storage for your kit:

What to include:

NCOA - Older Adult Preparedness Guide Infographic

Paperwork

Medical supplies

Other kit essentials

Situation-dependent extras

Plan an evacuation route

When a disaster happens

When an emergency strikes, swift and informed action is crucial. Here are key steps to take:

  1. Stay calm: Keep your composure to think clearly and make better decisions.
  2. Check alerts: Refer to emergency alerts for specific guidance on whether to evacuate or shelter in place.
  3. Activate the plan: Carry out your pre-established emergency plan, whether it’s grabbing your emergency kit for evacuation or hunkering down at home.
  4. Contact support: Reach out to your support network to inform them of your situation and next steps.

Emergency resources for older adults

Here is a list of common emergency resources:

Here are additional resources tailored to specific situations:

Bottom line

By taking proactive steps to be prepared before an emergency occurs, you not only safeguard your well-being but also gain peace of mind. This guide aims to be your comprehensive resource for emergency preparedness, offering actionable tips and expert advice—from creating an emergency kit to establishing a communication plan—to help you navigate unexpected situations with confidence and resilience.

Henry Mitchell, deputy director for the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told us: “There are steps older adults can take to keep themselves, their loved ones, and our communities safe and healthy.”

Those steps include, but are not limited to:

Have questions about this article? Email us at reviewsteam@ncoa.org.

Sources

  1. Statista Research Department. Number of Natural Disasters in the United States in 2022, by Type. Aug. 22, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.statista.com/statistics/216819/natural-disasters-in-the-united-states
  2. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Quick Statistics About Hearing. March 25, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-hearing
  3. Killeen, Olivia J., et al. Population Prevalence of Vision Impairment in U.S. Adults 71 Years and Older: The National Health and Aging Trends Study. JAMA Ophthalmology. Jan. 12, 2023. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaophthalmology/article-abstract/2800246
  4. Zitelli, Lori and Mormer, Elaine. Seminars in Hearing. Dec. 16, 2020. Smartphones and Hearing Loss: There’s an App for That! Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7744170
  5. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters. 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions
  6. American Red Cross. Common Natural Disasters Across U.S. Found on the internet at https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/common-natural-disasters-across-us.html#detail=everyone
  7. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Search Your Location. July 25, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fema.gov/locations
  8. National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Emergency Preparedness. Found on the internet at https://www.nad.org/resources/emergency-preparedness
  9. National Weather Service. Weather Safety Information for Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Found on the internet at https://www.weather.gov/wrn/dhh-safety
  10. National Weather Service. NOAA Weather Radio Frequently Asked Questions. Found on the internet at https://www.weather.gov/phi/nwrfaq
  11. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Access to Emergency Information on Television. Dec. 6, 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/accessibility-emergency-information-television
  12. American Foundation for the Blind. Stay Safe and Independent: Get Help in an Emergency With Mobile Apps and Services. Found on the internet at https://www.afb.org/aw/18/2/15238
  13. Ready.gov. Evacuate. Found on the internet at https://www.ready.gov/evacuation
  14. Ready.gov. Shelter. Found on the internet at https://www.ready.gov/shelter
  15. Ready.gov. Build a Kit. Found on the internet at https://www.ready.gov/kit
  16. Ready.gov. Safety Skills. Found on the internet at https://www.ready.gov/safety-skills
  17. Ready.gov. Pets. Found on the internet at https://www.ready.gov/pets
Lauren Sherman, M.S., is a health content writer with a master’s degree in human genetics from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center, laboratory experience from National Jewish Health, and clinical experience from Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Christopher Norman Headshot
Christopher Norman Medical Reviewer
Christopher Norman is a Board-Certified Geriatric Nurse Practitioner and Holistic Nurse. As a nurse’s aide, registered nurse and now nurse practitioner, he has loved working with older adults since 2004.
Kathleen Cameron
Kathleen Cameron Reviewer
Kathleen Cameron, BSPharm, MPH, has more than 25 years of experience in the health care field as a pharmacist, researcher, and program director focusing on falls prevention, geriatric pharmacotherapy, mental health, long-term services and supports, and caregiving. Cameron is Senior Director of the NCOA Center for Healthy Aging, where she provides subject matter expertise on health care programmatic and policy related issues and oversees the Modernizing Senior Center Resource Center.
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