Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast Episode 21:

This episode, “Preparation is key to keeping older adults safe, healthy during emergencies,” interviews Jim Judge, a member of the American Red Cross’ Scientific Advisory Council and chairman of the organization’s Disaster Health Subcommittee. Judge, who is also executive director for Lake Sumter EMS Inc. in Mount Dora, Fla., is interviewed by Teddi Johnson, a reporter from The Nation’s Health newspaper.

About three-quarters of the people who perished in Hurricane Katrina were older than 60. More recently, it was Japan’s oldest residents who were hit the hardest as a result of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Why are seniors more vulnerable in emergencies?

That’s a great question. And you’re absolutely correct. Seventy-five percent of the deaths during Hurricane Katrina were senior citizens, and of course we all saw the news and the effects that it had on Japan. And around the world, our population is aging rapidly. Right now, one out of every 10 persons is now 60 years or above, and many of our seniors have physical disabilities or conditions that affect their mobility, their agility. During an emergency, it may be difficult or even impossible for some seniors to evacuate quickly. Many use wheelchairs, they use walkers, they have trouble seeing, hearing, understanding, and they might misunderstand the emergency instructions. So that’s where special measures need to be taken to ensure that our seniors do evacuate safely, or have the proper information for them to be able to weather whatever the storm might be.

What are some common-sense measures that older Americans can take to start preparing for emergencies before they happen?

I would say, first-off, to get informed. Find out about what assistance may be available in their community through the local chapter of the American Red Cross or through the local emergency management agency. To find out if the community has special shelters designated for their care, which basically we call “special needs shelters.” Many of these shelters are medically staffed, medically equipped. In many communities, even transportation is provided to move residents at high risk to these facilities where they can be cared for. So getting informed about what services are available in the community is absolutely a priority. And then, make a plan. And the plan obviously includes family members or caregivers. Are you going to shelter in place? Are you going to evacuate? Lots of decisions need to be made, and it needs to be done with, care attendants, with friends, with relatives, to make sure that the plan is inclusive of what that individual’s going to do

In other words, I can’t tell an individual what they should do, but, again, we do try to provide information that folks can use to help make their individual decisions. Of course, a big part of that is, once you’re informed and you have a plan, then you want to get your emergency kit together. You want your supplies that you’re going to use to either shelter in place, or if you’re going to evacuate, things that you’re going to need to have in your home or to take with you to either a friend’s home or to an emergency shelter. And we can discuss that list of items, if you’d like, that people would need to take with them.

Sure. What would be some of the items?

Well, certainly you’d want to take some water. Generally it’s about one gallon per person per day. Food — nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items. Have a flashlight. And of course, one of the most important is that battery-powered or hand-crank radio so that you can monitor the weather and monitor the public safety information that’s being presented to the community. Extra batteries. A first aid kit is also going to be important. An individual’s medications, I would say for at least a week, if not for a couple of weeks, is going to be the best to have on board. Even a simple thing such as a can opener. A cellphone, if you have one, and certainly with a charger and making sure that it’s fully charged. Having a blanket, some maps of the area, but then also tailoring your kit for your own individual needs such as hearing aids, extra glasses, contact lenses, whatever you need individually to sustain your health and your well-being for a period of at least a week.

So there are some special things older adults need to ensure are in their kits.

Absolutely. And there’s a great list on the Red Cross website that if someone wanted to be “Red Cross-Ready,” there’s a lot of information there that an individual can review to make sure they have a comprehensive kit of supplies.

That’s great to know. And then, Jim, let’s imagine that a massive ice storm hits your town, resulting in a power outage that lasts a week. How can seniors and caregivers plan in advance for such an event?

Well, that’s a good point. We’ve certainly had that the last few years around the country. Some of the things that they need to prepare are, again, flashlights, making sure that they’re planning for those power outages. Flashlights are best even if you have some sort of a battery-powered table lamp, it’s certainly going to be much safer than using candles. Food — make sure that you have non-perishable food that would last a few days. Canned goods are good for long-term storage, and again, a can opener. Blankets, warm clothing, and of course the individual can layer their clothes if the power is out and heating is out.

Of course, you want to be very careful not to try to heat the home with a barbeque grill or even make a fire inside the home for heat. That can be very dangerous. Also, you want to make sure that you maintain contact with family members, so that they know that you are staying home. Let them know what your situation is prior to the storm approaching. And, again, you want to make sure that you do watch the weather reports and listen to the radio, and follow any advice that may be given to the local community. When the storm hits, have a fire or furnace running to keep you warm, but again, something that’s approved for inside the home. Stay warm. If you can drink hot liquids and eat hot foods, that’s also going to help maintain your body temperature and help you get through that event.

Thanks, Jim. So let’s talk about senior communities. If you or a loved one resides in a senior community such as a nursing home or an assisted living community, what steps should you take to ensure that the facility is prepared for any kind of emergency? We were talking about ice storms, but what about tornadoes, hurricanes, bioterror events, earthquakes, all of these things? What can you do to make sure that facility’s prepared?

What I would do is sit down with the facility and ask if I can review their disaster plans. All nursing homes and adult living facilities throughout the United States are required to have such plans. In the event of an evacuation of the facility, they have to have plans with services that can provide that evacuation. And most nursing homes and adult living facilities have sister facilities, so that if facility A has to evacuate, they’re able to go to another facility, and A uses B, so to speak. But review the disaster plans to make sure that they have enough water, backup power, that they have the food necessary, that they have medications on hand. Basically review the entire plan. What is that individual facility’s plan for each of these types of weather or even man-made events that may occur?

That’s great advice. And you speak from experience — you’ve worked in emergency management for almost four decades.

Yes, I have.

That’s amazing. Can you share some advice from your own past experiences?

Well, having been through quite a few local events. We’ve had significant tornado events here in our area, we’ve had hurricanes…

And again, you’re in Florida, correct?

That’s correct. I’m located in Central Florida, but I’ve also traveled to Katrina (areas) and assisted in the recovery there. I was also down after Hurricane Andrew. And really, a lot of planning for the elderly occurred after Hurricane Andrew, where we saw that many special-needs programs weren’t in place, not only in south Florida but even across the country.

Communities across America, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, of course the American Red Cross, have all been working across the country to educate the public to make preparations with local emergency management agencies, that we not only look after the 30-somethings, the 40-somethings, but we also look after the 60-plus adults and make sure that everyone’s needs can potentially be cared for in some type of a catastrophic event. But, certainly I have been through a number of different types of storms.

And you know, one of the things here in Florida that we do see is that people don’t plan, they don’t prepare, and there’s nothing more amazing to me than when you have a hurricane that’s approaching the coast, and the lines at Lowe’s and Wal-Mart and so forth are miles and miles long, where people are trying to get the basic supplies, trying to get plywood and things that they could have gotten a week earlier with a 30-minute trip to the store.

So make sure that you not only have a plan, but that you maintain a kit and that you have these provisions on hand. You never know when disaster is going to strike, so being proactive, having these things in place, planning for these types of events, are going to help the individual get through it. Because the local emergency services are going to respond, the state is going to respond, Red Cross is going to respond, but in a big event — like what we’re seeing now, with the tornados across the country — it’s going to take a few days for these resources to mobilize to be able to get in and provide that assistance. So having that individual person and that family be more prepared is only going to help them sustain themselves until help can arrive.

That’s all great information, Jim. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No, ma’am. I appreciate the opportunity, and again, I would refer anyone to the Red Cross website for a lot of information. If you have the Red Cross-Ready information, there’s everything from a winter storm checklist to handling pets — we really didn’t talk about pets, but there was a tragedy back during Hurricane Andrew where a lady came to a shelter with a pet and was turned away because that shelter didn’t take pets, so she went home and was killed in her home as a result of the hurricane.

But there’s a tremendous amount of information on Be Red Cross-Ready on the Red Cross website that goes into more information on getting a kit, making a plan and being informed. There are earthquake checklists. There’s even information on the flu. So, great deal of information that is at someone’s fingertips to be able to review. And it’s always best to review it now before something happens, to be prepared in the event that you face some type of a weather-related or man-made emergency.

So we will direct everybody to www.redcross.org.

Wonderful. Well, Jim, thank you for joining us today.

Well, Teddi, thanks so much for having me.

Narrator: Thank you for tuning in to today’s podcast. To learn more about the American Public health Association’s Get Ready campaign, visit www.aphagetready.org

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed April 2011 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA. Posted July 13, 2011.

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