Older Folks At Greater Risk In Natural Disasters

By Ruth Kava — Oct 19, 2017
The recent wildfires in northern California caused dozens of deaths, with most being those over age 65. Diminution of mobility and hearing acuity, for example, make older folks more vulnerable during natural disasters such as fast-moving fires, floods and earthquakes.

While wildfires, floods and earthquakes threaten everyone in their paths, older folks are distinctly more vulnerable, as exemplified by the fact that of the people who died in the recent northern California wildfires, most were over 65 years old. Of course most people would recognize that the elderly residing in nursing homes are most at risk, but community-dwelling adults in their later years may also be less able to respond effectively to an emergency. Just a brief consideration of aging makes this obvious.

First, many older folks no longer hear as well as they used to. According to some reports, as many as two-thirds of those over 70 have some degree of hearing loss. In a crisis, that can mean an inability to hear warnings on public media or instructions about safe havens they can access. While hearing aids can help, most people remove them at night, leaving them more vulnerable to missing important cues.

It has been widely recognized that reductions in mobility often predict disability. But even before reaching that level, a decrease in mobility certainly impacts a person's ability to escape danger. In  situations such as the extreme floods accompanying the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, for example, an inability to climb stairs impedes moving to a safe level above rising waters, as well as getting to a different locale.

And even a mild cognitive decline can diminish a person's ability to escape a dangerous situation. Someone who is easily confused may not recall the proper route to take to a safe place in case of fire.

It's been estimated that by 2050 the number of adults aged 60 and older will double — while this is a testament to improvements in health care, it also means that the population most vulnerable to natural disasters will also increase. While floods, earthquakes and wildfires can't be prevented, we should be aware of the additional difficulties that might be encountered by our older populations, and whenever possible, take steps to alleviate their vulnerabilities.




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