Most Older Adults Unprepared for Emergencies, Poll Finds

September 18, 2019

When disaster strikes, healthcare executives must be ready to take care of those in need of emergency medical services.

Most people over aged 50 years haven’t taken key steps to protect their health and well being in the event of severe weather, long-term power outages or other emergencies, according to new data from The University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.

The poll, carried out in May 2019 by the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine-U-M's academic medical center-asked a national sample of 2,249 adults aged 50 to 80 questions about their readiness for several kinds of emergencies. Three-quarters of those polled said they had experienced at least one major emergency in their life.

And while most people over aged 50 say they’re prepared for emergencies, fewer than half of the respondents have signed up for emergency warning systems offered by their communities; less than one-third have put together an emergency kit with essential supplies and medicines to get them through an emergency at home or to take with them in an evacuation; and only one-fourth of those who rely on electricity to run health-related equipment have a backup power supply.

When it came to food and water, just over half of those polled said they had the recommended week's worth of these supplies on hand. Even fewer had cell phone chargers and radios that didn't require electricity.

These findings suggest that older adults, their loved ones, and health care providers should take time to focus on key steps recommended by emergency preparedness professionals, and plan for how they will cope and communicate in an emergency.

"Whether it's as straightforward as a power outage that lasts a day, or as severe as a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, preparing can make a huge difference," says Preeti Malani, MD, the poll's director and a professor at the U-M Medical School. "A bit of time spent now can protect your health and spare you worry and expense, when something like this does happen."

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Sue Anne Bell, PhD, MSN, MSc, FNP-BC, a U-M School of Nursing researcher and IHPI member who studies the health implications of major emergencies and disasters, worked with the poll team. "The results of this poll can be used to target efforts to better support older adults to prepare for an emergency," she says. "By knowing areas where older adults are well prepared, and where they are not, programs can work alongside older adults to become fully prepared and ready."

Bell notes that one of the most important steps any adult can take to be ready for emergencies is to talk with loved ones about what to do in different situations, and what needs they should consider. For older adults with health conditions, who often rely on medication as well as medical supplies and equipment, this can be especially important.

"Having a basic emergency plan to evacuate and stay safe during a flood, hurricane,  or fire is a smart idea for everyone," says Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. "Preparing for natural disasters is particularly important for family caregivers caring for older adults who may have serious health and mobility challenges that need to be considered."

The poll does show some areas where most older adults appear prepared. For instance, 82% said they have a week's supply of their medications on hand, and 72% said they have a week's worth of other health supplies. Experts recommend having at least this amount on hand.

If they had to evacuate their homes, nearly all those polled said they would have transportation. But for one in four, paying for a place to stay for a week would be a serious challenge.

Financial readiness––including an emergency fund to cover any sort of unexpected costs––is a key part of emergency preparedness, Bell says.