Perspectives Series | Empowering Older Adults in a Disaster Requires Early Planning

Perspectives Series | Empowering Older Adults in a Disaster Requires Early Planning

May 9, 2016

May 9, 2016 - I’m a married adult female with two kids living in the Southeast.  But my vivid imagination can quickly take me to a place where I turn into a single, older adult, living in a multi-story, multi-family apartment building in the middle of New York City in the days immediately after Sandy bore down on the City.  There is no light in my apartment because there is no electricity.  The food in my refrigerator is running low, but I’m not able to descend the four flights of stairs to get out on the street to go to the grocery store or the corner market.  I have a week’s worth of my medication left, but now is usually the time that I call my doctor’s office for a refill.  What should I do?

What I have described here is not too terribly far from the truth that many older adults faced in the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy.  Thankfully, the New York Academy of Medicine, under Lindsay Goldman’s leadership, took the issue of older adults and disasters to heart.  She spent a year and a half researching older adult needs and prepared a stellar report Resilient Communities: Empowering Older Adults in Disasters and Daily Life that looks at the needs of older adults following disasters.

Grounded in the experience of Superstorm Sandy, the report compels funders, social service agencies, and other responders to take seriously the needs of older adults.  The opening sentence is compelling: “New York City’s 1.4 million people over age 60 and over constitute 17 percent of the city’s total population.  This number is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years.”

I’ll quote five of the twelve recommendations from the report here, but hope that you’ll take a moment to read either the eight-page report summary, or the longer, full report.

  1. Older adults in underserved neighborhoods should be trained to identify and link vulnerable people with community assets (e.g., health care, social services, benefits, food) under routine conditions and during emergencies.
  2. Communities should be assisted in organizing Community Resilience Hubs housed at the most appropriate and accessible institutions within each neighborhood to facilitate communal planning and multi-sector partnerships, and to serve as a central repository for information and supplies during an emergency.
  3. Providers of essential services to older adults should develop contingency plans to ensure the needs of their patients and clients will be met during disasters and emergencies. The City should extend MOUs and set funding policies in advance to enable providers to expand their reach during disasters
  4. Systematically co-locate and coordinate mental health, spiritual care, and psychological first aid with non-stigmatized disaster response and recovery services.
  5. The training for professional and volunteer first responders should include information on the needs of older adults in disasters, as well as on the cultural, linguistic, and developmental competencies that may be required to meet those needs.

If your organization actively supports older adults, I encourage you to consider ways to incorporate these disaster preparedness tactics in your efforts by seeking private funding partners.  For example, a funder could support local outreach initiatives for those who live in rural areas or are unable to get to assistance sites in a disaster.  Targeted funding could train senior adults to play a role in disaster recovery, food security, and livelihood assistance programs.  The HelpAge project in Haiti enabled 60-year-olds to help those in their 80s.  This project not only trained older adults to act as social workers to the oldest old, it also ensured they were familiar with available services.

I’d love to hear from you about how targeted funding for older adults and disasters has or could make a difference in your work.  What would you like to see funders focus on?  Please feel free to email me your thoughts at

Regine Webster

Regine A. Webster is Vice President of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy [], whose mission is to transform disaster giving by providing timely and thoughtful strategies to increase donors’ impact during domestic and international disasters.