Aging Populations and Preparedness: A Multifaceted Issue

Aging Populations and Preparedness: A Multifaceted Issue

June 5, 2017

June 5, 2017 - Our latest installment of the roundtable series Diseases and Disasters focused on a patient population to which we are all connected. Whether it is family, a neighbor, or friends – aging populations and their caregivers are important to us all. With the number of Americans age 65 and older comprising 15 percent of the population, and rapidly growing, it is essential that the emergency management and preparedness communities are able to have open dialogue with aging advocacy groups and experts. Our roundtable event was designed to serve as one forum for these conversations to occur, and judging by the engaging conversation and connections made, small, focused events such as these are a vital part of information sharing.

For me, one of the most thought provoking conversations happened at the very beginning of the event. In discussing what aging and elderly and disaster meant and how these terms should be defined and understood by the preparedness community, it became clear quickly that these terms are not so easily defined. Age is more than just a number when it comes to preparedness – it is also mobility, cognitive ability, familiarity with technology, number of chronic conditions, and more. The conversation highlighted that planning for these populations is a multifaceted endeavor.

Another major theme discussed was how to identify effective messaging and communication media for the elderly. The growing role of technology in disaster information sharing and awareness has important implications for ensuring aging populations are prepared. Attendees observed that the medium for sharing preparedness information with aging populations is an important factor, given that many may not be aware of, or know how to access, online resources. Aging experts added that consideration should also be given to how questions aimed at determining aging populations’ needs and corresponding recommended preparedness actions are framed. For example, these populations should be asked if they are capable of leaving their house over the more standard question of if they had to evacuate, would they know where to go.

How to reach aging and elderly populations was another central theme, since not all seniors have a caregiver or live close to family. With many more seniors “aging in place,” and familiarity with technology highly variable, effective outreach is key. Means of addressing this challenge discussed included expanding preparedness outreach efforts to institutions beyond those where seniors “eat, pray, and sleep” to additional services such community hubs such as barbershops, hair salons, etc. Representatives from aging advocacy organizations also noted that some seniors’ socio-economic status and limited resources may prevent them from being able to take certain preparedness actions, and planners should be cognizant of this factor.

Attendees also addressed the needs of aging populations during disasters. It is important that caregivers are able to travel with seniors during evacuations, when possible, to ensure continuity of care. Aging experts also highlighted nutrition as a particular concern for aging populations, as many either have unique nutritional needs or rely on wraparound services such as Meals on Wheels or other sources for nutrition. Attendees added individual health and medical concerns of seniors as an important consideration, as many seniors have at least one or more chronic conditions. These considerations include awareness and availability of prescription medication, availability of special services such as dialysis centers, and whether shelters can accommodate individuals with special needs.

A final major takeaway was a call to planners and decision-makers to highlight the positive aspects of aging and leverage the resources aging populations provide. Many seniors have a “done it before” mentality and this sense of resilience should be capitalized and engaged.

Partners have been as engaged and excited about the Diseases and Disasters roundtable series as we have been, and the vibrant conversation has underscored that conversations such as these are needed. We are identifying patient populations on which to focus subsequent events. If you’re interested in supporting these events, or continuing the conversation from past events, reach out to us at  

Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker is a Program Associate at Healthcare Ready. In this capacity, she provides a wide range of policy research, writing, and analytical support to the organization's preparedness initiatives.

Prior to joining Healthcare Ready, Sarah served as a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security and a variety of private sector organizations, during which time she supported the design, conduct, and evaluation of scores of preparedness exercises.

Sarah recently received her Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and holds a B.A. degree from the University of Notre Dame.