Preparing for disasters must include all citizens, especially the older persons
Whenever a disaster occurs, be it Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Hurricane Sandy here in New York, we stress the need to invest more in disaster preparedness. Early warning systems, contingency planning, evacuation routes and training for response teams – these are all things that can, and should, be set up well in advance of a disaster in order to save lives.
However, we need to remember that there is no one-size-fits all approach. Everything we do, from early warning to shelter provision, has to be tailored to the needs and capacities of community members.
Older persons in particular are disproportionately impacted by disasters, as they often have limited capacity and less access to available systems. Difficulties in hearing or seeing, for instance, may limit access to emergency announcements; chronic health issues or special needs may delay or prevent escape and evacuation; and an absence of transportation may limit the ability to stock up on food, water and supplies. For older persons unfamiliar or unaware of the gravity of the crisis, there may be reluctance to reach out or seek shelter.
So what can we do?
First, we can recognize the specific vulnerabilities of the older persons and take measures to work around them. This means working closely with caregivers and tapping into local networks; it means reaching out to and empowering civil society groups, such as churches and local organizations; and it means enabling first responders and evacuation shelters to support older persons.
For this to work, the concerns of the elderly have to be meaningfully addressed in disaster preparedness plans and programmes. Governments must include these concerns in plans and budgets, and local officials must reach out to older community members.
On the other hand, older persons have decades of experiences and contextual knowledge that can be helpful in case of disaster. They may be more privy to historical risks in the community, and many have particular skill sets or networks that can step in and support emergency relief. These capacities should be built upon and utilized.
We often talk about the dual threats of climate change and rapid urbanization as increasing the risk on countries and communities. An aging population, a common trend globally, means that there will be even more vulnerable people living in ever more dense cities worldwide. On the international day for disaster risk reduction, let’s make sure that we include and empower older persons as well.