Unique Risks Faced by Older Adults During Natural Disasters

Hurricane Ian recently left a wake of destruction in Florida. Natural disasters, like Ian, do not impact all individuals and communities equally. Seniors consistently suffer unique challenges in these catastrophic events. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, half of the deaths were among those age 75 and older. This stark disparity stems largely from difficulties managing chronic conditions during disasters, challenges in affording evacuation costs, and social isolation common among older Americans.

Florida has the greatest population of seniors per capita in the United States, with over 20% of the population age 65 and older. The majority, 85%, of older adults have at least one chronic condition while 60% have two or more. Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s gulf coast, 500,000 households are still without power. Managing chronic conditions often entails equipment, medications, and strict dietary routines. Without access to electricity for medical equipment such as dialysis machines and oxygen, refrigeration for food and medications, and open pharmacies for refilling prescriptions, many individuals living with chronic conditions can and will see sharp declines and setbacks in their health. Further, for those who need caregiving support, communicating with caregivers becomes challenging, and at times impossible, without power and cell service.

Another key issue which arises for older Americas during emergency situations is inaccessibility of evacuation. Social isolation is common among older adults and without a strong social support system, it becomes challenging to relocate to avoid the harshest impacts of natural disaster. While many Floridians are currently staying with out-of-state family members or friends to avoid the worst of the storm’s impacts, socially isolated individuals typically don’t have the option or aren’t comfortable asking others to house them during an emergency. In addition, many older Americans cannot drive due to physical or cognitive impairments. This, coupled with the high costs of travel, makes getting to safety especially challenging for retirees living on fixed incomes.

These risks specific to seniors and those living with chronic illness come on top of an already dangerous and extreme situation for all Florida residents. As homes and streets flood, individuals lack access to clean drinking water, and residents scramble to make evacuation plans without cell service or power, older Americans are forced to balance day-to-day care with emergency protocols. The devastating effects of Hurricane Ian in Florida serve as a reminder for us to check in with our loved ones. Regardless of age, social isolation threatens our health and wellbeing. A simple phone call to check in with relatives can help create the connections and community needed to endure such extreme events.