Create a written plan to execute when disaster strikes.
Photo by FEMA
Senior citizens are vulnerable to disasters like everyone else. When it comes to disasters, one of the most important things is planning ahead. Create a written plan to prepare.

History has taught us that natural and manmade disasters are inevitable. When they occur elsewhere in the world, we are often sympathetic but grateful it didn’t happen to us. Physical ability and the appropriate mindset to plan for and deal with a local disaster are crucial to surviving any emergency. However, those in our senior citizen community, given their personal circumstances and physical conditions, may have fewer practical options available to them.

If you’re a senior, you may have physical disabilities, live alone or be without the resources you used to have when you were in the workforce, including a car and friends or neighbors who stay in regular contact. Despite these limitations, you must be ready to respond to an emergency. When disaster strikes, every member of a family or community is vital to the group’s survival, so it is important to educate yourself to ensure that, no matter your age, you are prepared and ready to face any emergency at any time.

Survival Mode

Your single most important survival tool is having the mindset to survive against all odds. This can be summed up as being aware of your surroundings, evaluating what you see, deciding what to do and acting when it is appropriate and necessary. Having a basement full of survival gear is nice, but without the correct mindset, it won’t help very much.

Good decisions are easier to make before a disaster than when it is occurring. Begin by writing two lists. The first list should detail the most likely disasters and threats to your wellbeing that may occur in your area and would force you to evacuate your home. For example, this list could include forest fires, house fires, flooding from rain or an imminent threat of a dam breaking, a nearby chemical spill, a hurricane or tornado, or even pending civil unrest. If any of these events occur, will you go to a public shelter such as a Red Cross location, a friend’s house or an emergency shelter at a local school? Determine where your target shelter is located and how to get there in bad weather or if public transportation is unavailable.

The second list should consist of possible events that will cause residents to shelter in place. During these events, you may be directed by local government or law enforcement agencies to remain inside because of an active criminal incident, a temporary outage of utilities, a chemical spill near your home, or flooding, a forest fire, civil unrest or rioting.

Understand and be prepared for physical, emotional and mental reactions to a disaster. Discuss potential problems and solutions with family and neighbors in a relaxed and unemotional way before the disaster, and also continue to communicate with others during the incident. Share news of successes and inform others of setbacks and problems in a calm, unemotional way. People behave better in a stressful, dangerous environment when they have a plan and the ability to make that plan work.

Planning Ahead

Residents should plan for disasters that are likely in their geographic location, like hurricanes in Florida and earthquakes in California. Evaluate the pros and cons of sheltering in place versus evacuating or bugging out to a safer location.

Long before any disaster strikes, create a written plan. It is easier to think logically when there is no imminent threat. Under stress, it’s easier to act appropriately when the plan is already written down. It helps in the decision-making process to ask the following questions: Where do we go? How do we get there? Who will come with us? What do we take? What is the event that makes us decide when to leave? (This could be an order from the county sheriff to evacuate or even something as simple as the fire alarm at home sounding.) Be aware that some evacuation routes may not be available at all times. For example, the main road out of town may be flooded or it may be backed up due to a traffic accident. Always plan an alternate route.

Evaluate the abilities of every household member and determine things each person will need help with. For example, figure out who can drive a car and who can walk a long distance while carrying a pack. Is there money available to pay for travel? Who will accompany you? Who can assist and help you?

Fortify Your Home

Seniors who shelter in place should make sure they have enough food, water, medications, emergency heating and lighting for at least 72 hours. It is very important to have at least one method of communication (telephone, cell phone or email). Consider having alternative energy options in case gas and electricity utilities break down.

Portable lanterns and stoves powered by liquid fuels that produce a naked flame might be good for use outdoors, but because of the risk of fire and the increased levels of deadly carbon monoxide gas inside a room, they should never be used inside a dwelling. It’s safer to use battery-operated lighting inside. Residents of homes with a built-in wood- or coal-burning stove or fireplace might consider ways to safely heat water for preparing hot drinks and soups.

With any open flame, always remove combustible materials such as bedding, furniture and newspapers from the area, and never leave it unattended. Residents who have a propane gas or charcoal barbeque in their backyard might consider obtaining a second propane cylinder or extra charcoal and keeping it just for emergencies.

Emergency Services

Before a disaster occurs, identify people and local services such as the Red Cross and The Salvation Army that can be of assistance in an emergency. Communicate your concerns to them and ask to see local government plans for disaster preparedness. Make a list of local schools and government buildings that are designated as emergency shelters. Discuss with local neighbors, friends and relatives how to establish a plan for cooperating and communicating before and during a disaster. This could be as simple as creating a contact list of everyone’s email address and phone number. In addition, identify strengths and weaknesses in your immediate circle of friends and neighbors: Who owns a vehicle? Who has medical training? Who has trouble walking long distances? Who is at home during the day and can notify other neighbors who are at work of problems in the neighborhood?

Stay connected to disaster alerts. Many counties and municipalities have an emergency alert program where residents can sign up to receive emergency alerts by telephone. Be aware of notifications of disasters from local radio and TV, or from neighbors and local responders going door to door.

Bug-Out Supplies

Assemble a bug-out bag that contains the personal items you would need for an extended emergency lasting several days: a change of clothes, cash and credit cards, a driver’s license or other identifying documentation as well as personal medical information and prescriptions, toiletries and house keys.

If the plan includes bugging out by car, then include summer and winter supplies for the vehicle: spare windshield washer fluid, blankets and a first-aid kit. Food is a vital resource and a morale booster. Include simple foods such as energy bars and diet supplements like Ensure, as well as emergency food such as freeze-dried items and the time-tested Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) pouches. Remember that some supplies have a shelf life and should be replaced periodically.

Keep in mind that in preparation for a disaster, all important documents should be stored in a safe place. For example, this may be in a safe deposit box at a bank outside the immediate disaster area. Copies of important documents can be made as electronic computer files and stored on a jump drive, which is small enough to keep on a key ring. Local office service and supply stores may be able to provide the means to scan documents to an electronic format under supervision by the customer, but be aware that any paper or electronic copies of sensitive personal information could be stolen and used in identity theft crimes.

Family Support

Many seniors have grandchildren and young adults who spend time with them. Those relatives can be included in planning for disasters and encouraged to take an active role. This may include tasks like listening for local tornado warning sirens and home fire alarms (particularly if the older family members are hearing impaired), or carrying a bug-out bag and monitoring emergency updates via the internet or cell phone. Be prepared for a mix of physical and emotional reactions from youngsters, such as fear, anger, sadness and frustration.

Current statistics from the U.S. Census show that about 25 percent of the U.S. population is 55 years old or older, while 13 percent are 65 years old or older and 6 percent are 75 or older. In a total population of 319 million, that’s a significant number of people, many of whom have some physical ailment that impedes their activities or are dependent on medication to help them get through each day. Our senior citizens may not be as capable of saving themselves from disaster as younger, more physically robust citizens, but with some careful planning and realistic preparation before disaster strikes, seniors can increase their chances of survival.

Disaster Planning Resources

American Red Cross:; 800-733-2767

Department of Homeland Security:

Federal Emergency Management Agency:

DHS does not endorse this article, Survivor’s Edge or

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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