Providing Care for Special Populations During a Disaster

A new CDC report offers guidance on accounting for the needs of the elder population during disaster response


During a disaster like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, or more recently Hurricane Sandy, identifying and caring for special populations can be difficult.

The elderly are particularly at risk during disasters and other all-hazards emergencies, because “older adults may have impaired mobility, diminished sensory awareness, multiple chronic health conditions, and social and economic limitations—all of which can impair their ability to prepare for, respond to and adapt during emergencies.”

That’s according to the recently published Identifying Vulnerable Older Adults and Legal Options for Increasing Their Protection During All-Hazards Emergencies: A Cross-Sector Guide for States and Communities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

EMS providers may be familiar with a number of older adults in their communities, but responding to the specific needs of all older adults during a disaster can be challenging. The Guide provides a number of key points that can benefit EMS agencies as they plan for and respond to disasters in their area.

Identifying Older Adults in the Community
Older adults who live in long-term care facilities or retirement communities are often easier to account for than those who live in the general community. There may already be regulations in place governing their care and appropriate actions to take during an emergency.

Older adults who live in the community can be difficult to indentify. Often, these individuals are independent and still lead active lives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require special consideration.

Though they still live at home, many community-dwelling older adults may rely on care from family members or other caregivers. They may also depend on support systems for medical care, prescription medication, food and other essential needs. And their physical mobility and access to transportation may be limited.

Building Coalitions and Maintaining Registries
Because the older adult population can be difficult to identify, it is important to work with other groups and organizations at a local, state and even federal level long before a disaster occurs to build, maintain and use registries for special populations.

Registries can be based on specific needs (e.g., medical, transportation) or used more broadly to identify any person among a group who might require special assistance during an emergency.

Collaborate with local home health organizations, short-term care facilities, hospitals, and city or county health and social services departments to develop a list of older adults in the community. Also cross reference the registry against records from local faith-based organizations, senior centers and Meals on Wheels. Any group which comes in regular contact with older adults makes a good partner, and registries can be used by multiple organizations to benefit the entire senior population in the community.

Because of changes to place of residence, changing needs and other factors for people already registered, as well as for incremental additions or subtractions, the registry must be maintained and updated regularly for accuracy if it’s to be of any use in an emergency. Periodically connecting with partnering organizations can help keep the registry up-to-date, as well as educating older adults in the community about the registry and encouraging them to update their information.

Communicating With Older Adults
While many older adults are becoming more technically savvy, this is still a population that’s difficult to reach through social media or other “new media” channels. As a result, EMS agencies will want to work with partnering organizations, especially senior centers, to educate older adults about disaster preparedness, such as where they can go during a disaster and who they can call for help.

Running advertisements on local television and radio, as well as in newspapers—this can and should include regular columns in the newspaper about emergency/disaster preparedness for special populations—is also recommended for reaching the older adult population.

This content continues onto the next page...