Seniors and people with disabilities are overlooked in natural disaster management, Senate Aging Committee Chair Bob Casey (D-PA) said Thursday at a committee session devoted to the issue.
“It is important they are included in preparation, response, and mitigation,” Casey told the hearing.
Eighty percent of adults ages 65 and older have at least one chronic condition that may impair their ability to prepare for or recover from the effects of disasters, according to a Senate Aging memo released before the session.
At the same time, the memo noted older adults and people with disabilities endure disproportionate harm during and following disasters compared to their non-disabled peers and are more likely to lose their independence during all phases of disaster management as a result of not being included in the planning and response process.
“People with disabilities and older adults must have a seat at the table when we’re doing that planning. Disparities must be remedied.,” Casey said.
Some of the remedies he would like to see are ensuring seniors and people with disabilities have a voice at every stage of disaster management and that they are given accessible information about planning for disasters and to make sure temporary housing is available to them.
Those features are included in legislation he is sponsoring: The Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion for Disasters Act, or the REAADI [READY] for Disasters Act.
Other help for seniors and people with disabilities to cope with natural disasters is included in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill which expands home and community-based services which could help save lives, he added.
Citing preparedness as essential for seniors to handle disasters, Senate Aging Ranking Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina said he has introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Schatz from Hawaii, the [Repeatedly] Flooded Communities Preparation Act to provide more resources to those areas of our that consistently, continuously flood — they are flood-prone communities.
Casey and Scott are sponsoring the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act to increase food security for older Americans and others during emergencies by opening up a pathway for food producers, restaurants, and non-profits to partner with their state and local governments to meet the needs on the ground.
The current the nation mitigates, prepares for, respond to, and recover from disasters is not inclusive—or equitable, University of Michigan Assistant Nursing Professor who does research into disasters and health Dr. Sue Ann Bell told the hearing.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable in natural disasters, she pointed out because the loss of basic infrastructure such as loss of power or transportation may cause serious care interruptions, especially access to health care, which can have long-lasting health impacts.
The situation is worse during a natural disaster evacuation or power outage for people with dementia as consistent medication administration may be altered, and daily routines may be disrupted, the disasters researcher said.
Bell said a weakness of natural disaster management now for seniors is home-based care is frequently not included as part of the health care response—where the focus is on hospitals and nursing homes.
Home-based care organizations reported feeling left on their own to care for patients after disasters—where in turn those patients would be left on their own if home-based care was not there, she added.
A Louisiana nursing professor who started her work in disaster management in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2003 told the Aging Committee nearly half of the deaths resulting from the hurricane occurred among older adults.
“The one lesson that we have all learned through the many disasters that have occurred is that populations are not equally impacted by a disaster,” said Dr. Wanda Spurlock of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge.