Why Disaster Management Should Center on the Elderly—and How to Make it Happen

An elderly Red Cross volunteer speaks with a woman and child temporarily housed in the Houston Astrodome following the evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on September 2, 2005 (Andrea Booher/FEMA Photo Library, Wikimedia Commons) Elderly individuals are among those most likely to be injured and to perish in a disaster. Sixty-seven percent of those who perished during Hurricane Katrina were over 65 years of age. During both the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the March 2011 Japanese tsunami, the death rates of elderly individuals were higher than those for other adults. Climate change, increasing numbers of disasters, population migration to coastlines, and ageing population structures have made disaster planning for the elderly a growing concern for disaster management agencies worldwide. Since 2000, the global population of elderly individuals over 65 has grown to 600 million individuals, or over 8 percent of the global population. Industrialized countries have even higher proportions of elderly individuals: forty million Americans, 13 percent of the population, are over 65.

Scholars describe social vulnerability to disaster as “the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard.” Disaster have differential impacts for different population segments depending on those populations’ social relations. Demographic characteristics often determine access to economic, political, and social resources—and therefore, determine social vulnerability. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, persons living in poverty, those who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, children, and the elderly often have reduced access to such resources. They therefore suffer disproportionate impacts from disasters and experience slower or even truncated recovery.

The consequences of aging—rather than age itself—limit elderly individuals' ability to respond to disaster warnings and take protective action, leading to higher mortality and injury rates. Advancing age correlates with a decline in physical and mental health functions, as well as a greater likelihood of having chronic health concerns or special needs that increase physical frailty and vulnerability. Furthermore, a large proportion of elderly persons also suffer from some type of disability, compounding their vulnerability to the impact of a disaster. Individuals with a disability have greater difficulty receiving and interpreting disaster warning information, taking protective actions (like ducking under tables during an earthquake), preparing evacuation supplies, evacuating without assistance, and completing post-disaster rebuilding.

Beyond physical concerns, elderly populations’ reduced level of social capital can also limit their disaster resilience. Friends, neighbors, and family members communicate warnings, encourage disaster preparation, provide shelter and supplies, and offer immediate aid and initial recovery assistance in disaster situations. When elderly persons leave the workforce or no longer have children at home, their connections to members of this community often decline. A shrinking social network reduces their sources of support and disaster information. In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Eric Klinenberg demonstrated the dramatic effect of age and reduced social ties on the mortality rates of elderly men during the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995. Klinenberg found that elderly, low-income men who lived alone died at higher rates than did all other demographics, especially in neighborhoods that lacked social services and community organizations that reached out to residents during the disaster.

The role of elderly individuals as family leaders may also undermine their resilience to disasters. Research has indicated the important role that strong family ties plays in fostering disaster resilience. Family members are commonly the first source of assistance during a disaster, and variations in family relationships across cultures mean that the role of elders during disaster situations may vary. Young family members may view elderly individuals as family leaders and a resource for emotional, evacuation, or financial support during times of emergency. Recent research about the role of social networks during disasters has shown that individuals often assume that parents, grandparents, and family elders will be reliably available to assist them during emergency situations, especially as sources of financial support. Assuming this role as family leaders and providers may stress the elderly, who often live on fixed budgets and are still expected to provide housing and emotional support to younger family members.

Ageing populations also mean an increase in the number of elderly individuals localized to congregate care settings like nursing homes. Well-planned evacuation procedures are needed to ensure the safety of these individuals. Special considerations for disaster planning that this population requires include more complicated evacuation resources, such as ambulances and medically equipped buses, as well as quick access to hospitals and medical supplies. Relocating during an emergency situation can be stressful, which often leads to higher mortality rates among fragile populations. Even smooth evacuations can increase the potential for early death among the elderly. Recent reports from Japan and Texas indicate that even those individuals who were successfully evacuated from disaster-affected nursing homes are dying earlier than expected.

Nevertheless, like all other vulnerable populations, the elderly also offer valuable capacities in disaster situations. Individuals who have retired from the workforce often spend more of their time volunteering. Disaster volunteers represent a crucial link between informal community resources and established government response organizations. As government social services continue to be transferred to non-governmental entities like faith-based organizations, volunteers have increasingly assumed a greater responsibility to help meet the needs of disaster survivors. Disaster volunteering can require traveling to another location for long periods of time. For some organizations, volunteers are more likely to be older because of the often significant time and resources required to travel to a disaster site. In other situations, volunteers for nongovernmental organizations may be drawn to disaster volunteering in cases where their community has been directly affected by disaster. My own recent research has indicated that elderly volunteers are crucial to long-term disaster recovery work through local community agencies, especially in rural communities. In a rural county in Texas, which has a population of around 50,000 people, individuals over the age of 55 comprised fully two-thirds of citizens involved in long-term recovery efforts. These individuals were almost exclusively volunteers or employees of local or regional nonprofit organizations, who had donated their extra personal and professional time to the recovery project.

In order to respond to these multivalent factors, emergency managers and government planners should focus on understanding the demographics of the elderly populations within individual communities to increase awareness of these populations' differential needs and capacities. These needs manifest in four crucial areas that demand greater planning and collaborative infrastructure. First, ageing populations will require earlier warning systems so that they have the time to take protective actions. These warning systems must be accessible to individuals with declining physical capacity, hearing, and vision. Talking with elder groups and groups that work with individuals with disabilities will help emergency managers plan for and accommodate these needs.

Second, ageing populations—both those who live independently and those who live in nursing homes—require greater evacuation assistance. Emergency planners should incorporate contracts with transportation providers for specialized vehicles necessary to transport medically fragile individuals, as well as those with disabilities. Congregate care facilities should also contract with transportation providers and other facilities outside of their service area that could permanently house residents if the care facility is destroyed or rendered inoperable in a disaster. The fewer times elderly individuals are moved during an evacuation, the greater their likelihood of surviving without suffering potentially life-threatening levels of stress. Once again, regular and formal communication between emergency management and local elderly groups and congregate care facilities will improve planning.

Third, disaster preparedness and education programs must focus on families. Younger and older generations should be encouraged to discuss evacuation and housing plans with both nearby and geographically distant family members. Furthermore, financial planning for disaster situations should incorporate extended family into the discussion.

Finally, emergency management agencies and volunteer organizations should discuss ways to use the capacities and skills of elderly populations to support recovery and resilience efforts. Community elders have knowledge, time, and resources to assist community organizations with becoming more disaster resilient. They can also step into leadership roles when disaster strikes. Communication between this vulnerable population and disaster management will only improve the capacity of disaster management agencies to meet the needs and use the skills of this growing demographic.