Disaster Preparedness

· Updated: April 16, 2024

The year 2020 set quite a few records for natural disasters, including wildfires, hurricanes, rain, and flooding. These disasters can be incredibly traumatizing for seniors. Older people are more frail and less mobile, making it a challenge for them to respond quickly. They may not always have the help they need to escape a danger zone.

The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to prepare yourself for emergencies if you’re a senior. If you’re a caretaker or family member of a senior, you can also take safety measures. This guide covers the common types of emergencies to be aware of, tips for helping the elderly evacuate, and a checklist of items to bring.

View from the Experts: Emergency Preparedness for Older Americans

View from the Experts: Emergency Preparedness for Older Americans

General Tips for Senior Safety & Emergency Preparedness

Identify Your Risks

The risks to be aware of depend on the area you live in. Some areas are prone to flooding, while others are prone to fires and snowstorms, for example.

King County, Washington, is at medium risk of earthquake, snowfall, and avalanche disasters. It is at low risk of flood, tornado, wildfire, landslide, and heatwave disasters. There's no risk from hurricanes, droughts, and volcanoes.

Meanwhile, Hudson, New Jersey, has high flood risks. It is at medium risk of hurricanes, earthquakes, heatwaves, and snowfall disasters. Tornadoes, wildfires, and landslides pose low risks. There is no risk from droughts, avalanches, and volcanoes.

Familiarize Yourself with Local Resources

What happens when a disaster strikes? Do you know where to go and who to ask for help if needed? Whether you’re a senior or a caregiver, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with local resources before an emergency occurs. This way, you won’t fumble around trying to find out what to do next or where to go. It may make sense to invest in a medical alert system so that you can summon help quickly. Check out our list of the best medical alert systems for older adults to find a system that’s right for you.

Most areas have emergency shelter locations. Identify those and write a list of emergency contacts and addresses. Keep this list somewhere safe and available to take with you in an emergency. Keep an electronic version as well, for example, in your smartphone contacts with “911” included in each entry. Gather contact information for your local:

  • Fire department
  • Police department
  • Doctor
  • Hospitals
  • Animal control
  • Vet
  • Locksmith
  • Water supplier
  • Power supplier
  • Poison control
  • Animal control

Get a Plan in Place

A solid plan is the most pivotal part of surviving an emergency. Disasters often strike unexpectedly, making it hard to think and act logically. Create an emergency plan that is easy to follow and that works for the types of disasters in your area. Keep the plan somewhere accessible and include these elements:

  • Communication plan with your family and caregivers so that you won’t lose touch with the ones you love in any emergency.
  • Safe and easy escape routes in case of fire or flood. Your pl an should detail how to escape from each room in your home so that no matter what room you’re in, you have an idea of what to do in case of an emergency. It’s best to have more than one route option to be safe.
  • What to do next after escaping — where to go and who to call for help if needed.
  • Emergency contacts, their addresses, and their phone numbers

Make an Emergency Kit: Checklist

  • Non-perishable foods3 DAYS WORTH
  • Bottled water
  • Medication
    • 3 DAYS WORTH
  • Spare clothing
  • Pet food if you have pets
    • 3 DAYS WORTH
  • Spare keys to your house and car(s)
  • Glasses & spare contacts
  • Waterproof matches
  • Swiss army knife
  • Can opener
  • First aid kit
  • Common toiletries
  • Blankets
  • Cell phone charger
  • Cash
  • Spare hearing aid batteries
  • Flashlight
  • Battery powered radio

Keep your kit somewhere accessible. If you have any pets, keep their carriers and leashes within easy reach.

Get Connected with your Neighbors

It never hurts to connect with your neighbors, especially if you live alone. In some emergencies, survival depends on teamwork and helping each other out. By building a support network where you live, your neighbors will know you exist and are more likely to check up on you in the event of a disaster (and vice versa!).

Provide your top contacts to neighbors ahead of time. Also, let them know about medications, special needs, and allergies you may have. Your neighbors might be the ones communicating with responders if you are unable to do so.

Staying Safe in Extreme Temperatures

Extreme temperatures are silent killers, and it's easy to underestimate their lethality. Seniors, especially those with chronic health issues such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, are even more vulnerable. Let's go over the precautions to take.

Extreme Heat

Extreme heat kills more than 1,220 people in the United States each year, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Older adults are among those most affected, as their bodies don't handle heat as well as they used to. Here are some approaches to staying safe:

  • Air conditioning: When a heatwave hits, stay inside with air conditioning on. This keeps your body from overheating and prevents heatstroke and dehydration. If you don’t have air conditioning, try going to emergency shelters, the movies, the mall, or the community center.
  • Avoid the sun: Direct sunlight compounds the effects of extreme heat. If you must be outside, try to stay in the shade or do your work in the evening or early morning when the sun is less punishing.
  • Hydration: Your body needs plenty of water to function properly, and dehydration can lead to organ failure. Drink water-based fluids such as water, juice, and sports drinks. You can even purchase unflavored electrolytes to put in all your beverages for maximum hydration. Do not drink caffeine or alcohol, as they dry you out faster.
  • Breathable clothing: Your clothing can have a considerable effect on your internal temperature. Wear clothing that allows sweat to evaporate, which keeps your body cool. Loose, light-colored clothing is also helpful. Wear a hat and sunglasses to avoid sunburn and to protect your eyes.
  • No sunburn: It's easy to get sunburned during extreme heat. In the “best” cases, sunburn is uncomfortable. On a deeper level, it can aggravate pre-existing skin conditions such as cancer. Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen of at least 30 SPF are three great ways to protect yourself. SPF 70 is even better. Reapply sunscreen for every hour you are outside.
  • Cool down: Take cool showers or baths. The water cools down the blood in your veins, which, in turn, lowers the temperature in your entire body. Another way to bring your body temperature down rapidly is to soak hand towels in cold water and place them on areas such as the neck, wrists, and armpits. That's because these areas of your body experience a lot of blood flow. (Instead of hand towels, you can use ice packs.)

Extreme Cold

Cold is just as taxing as extreme heat. Seniors' bodies can lose heat quickly, and they have a harder time knowing when they are cold. The net result: Seniors may stay outside longer than is safe, and hypothermia hits them more rapidly. Here are a few ways to stay safe in the extreme cold.

  • 68°F Minimum on Heater – Sometimes it’s tempting to turn the heater down to save on utility costs, but this can be life-threatening during extremely cold days. A heater set lower than 68°F does not adequately heat the house, and an older body might not signal the brain when it is too cold. Seniors living alone could fall into fatal hypothermia, as they are not keeping their bodies warm enough to function correctly.
  • Dress Warmly – Even if you don’t feel cold, still wear a sweater, long pants, and socks. When going to bed, bundle up thoroughly to ward off hypothermia.
  • Insulate the House – Make sure your windows are not drafty. Check that they are shut tight and locked and the curtains drawn. Install weather stripping if possible. A drafty house saps heat from the heaters, raising utility bills and causing unsafe conditions.
  • Notify Friends/Family – If you live alone, ask a friend or family member to check on you periodically. You may not notice the signs of hypothermia, but someone else should. They can get you medical help if needed.
  • Stay Dry – Change out of snowy clothes as soon as possible. Wet clothing saps you of body heat.

Protecting Your Family & Home from Fires

House fires can happen at any time. Safety precautions go a long way toward keeping everyone safe in the household and preserving irreplaceable belongings. We’ll go over preventative measures and steps for handling house fires.

How to Protect Your Home From Fires

  • Keep a smoke alarm on every level of your home. Ideally, you'd have alarms in bedrooms and outside of sleeping areas. Test them monthly, and change the batteries every six months.
  • Keep space heaters at least three feet from anything that could catch on fire easily. Turn heaters off when you are not in the same room.
  • Get chimneys, fireplaces, and wood stoves serviced and cleaned each year.
  • Install a fire alarm system with flashing lights to alert seniors with hearing impairments. Consider listening devices that use mixed-pitch frequencies and bed shakers to rouse sleeping seniors. Many fire deaths occur at night.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on each floor and in the kitchen.
  • Don’t leave cooking unattended. It increases the chances of an oil fire or a dishrag catching fire.
  • Blow out candles. Do not leave them burning in unattended rooms.
  • Don't smoke around oxygen tanks, whether they are in use or in storage.
  • Avoid smoking in bed.
  • Go with non-tip ashtrays if you smoke. Use water to put out butts, and don't let the butts pile up.

What to Do in the Event of a Fire

  • Perform Dry Runs – Hold regular fire drills. Designate someone to help seniors, especially those who cannot move quickly enough to evacuate within two minutes. The quicker the evacuation, the better.
  • Sound the Alarm and Check on Everyone – Most fatal fires occur while everyone is sleeping. Heavy smoke can put a person into a deeper sleep, with seniors more susceptible to sleeping through fires. Check that seniors are awake and on their way out.
  • Keep Hearing Aids and Other Devices Close to Seniors – Fumbling around for hearing aids, glasses, walking aids, and phones costs precious seconds, even minutes. Seniors should keep their devices on nightstands and within easy reach. Similarly, their lamps should be touch- or voice-activated, easy to turn on.
  • Stay Low – Seniors should sleep on the lowest level of the house/building possible. Stay down while escaping to avoid heavy smoke inhalation.

Preparing for a Hurricane

Hurricanes are getting stronger and more vicious due to global warming. Act now to lessen the risk of one turning your life upside down.

  • Be ready to leave instantly. Prepare a to-go kit with clean clothes, eyeglasses or contacts if needed, personal hygiene products, medications, personal documents, and cash. Include water and nutritious snacks.
  • Keep all important documents somewhere secure and easy to grab. Include any prescriptions and health records. In case someone has health complications, medical personnel will know what they can and can’t do.
  • Check in regularly. If you do not live with your senior parents, create a line of communication with their neighbors. These folks can check on your parents while you are on the way over. It also helps if you have permission to access your parents' security cameras or smart speakers. You may be able to see where they are and speak with them.
  • Have a medication checklist. Leaving behind even one type of medication can spell disaster on top of the natural disaster you're already going through. A list of medications helps ensure you grab them all.
  • Create a list of resources. Be able to quickly contact relatives, doctors, pharmacists, and local disaster relief personnel.

Are You Tornado Ready?

Tornadoes give almost no warning, in contrast to hurricanes. More than 1,200 tornadoes touch down in the United States annually, with April, May, and June being particularly hard-hit months. Keep a few critical things in mind to protect yourself against these atmospheric storms.

  • Build an emergency kit with essentials such as medications, hearing aid batteries, personal hygiene items, high-calorie non-perishable foods, clothing changes, flashlights, and blankets.
  • Decide escape routes ahead of time.
  • Establish who should check on and assist seniors.
  • Discuss how everyone will communicate. Will everyone use cellphones, walkie-talkies, or find one another at a designated meeting spot? Ensure that seniors know how to use any selected devices.
  • Identify community resources. They can help with extra supplies, more water, or senior care to make the aftermath of a disaster more manageable.
  • Meet specific needs. For example, you might need backup batteries for hearing aids, manual wheelchairs (rather than battery-powered wheelchairs), and a whistle if seniors get separated and are unable to move. Seniors can use a whistle to attract attention to themselves.

Knowing Your Flood Insurance Options

If you live in a flood-prone area, you probably have flood insurance already. But do you have the best coverage? The federally run National Flood Insurance Program covers structural damage to your home and some belongings. It does not cover any injuries caused by flooding or living expenses like having to stay in a hotel while your home is repaired or until the floodwater clears. These expenses can be exceptionally costly for seniors or their caregivers.

You can purchase Excess Flood Insurance from the private market. It's compatible with the National Flood Insurance Program. You get higher coverage limits with private flood insurance: $500,000 for the home and $250,000 for belongings. The NFIP is capped at $250,000 for home and $100,000 for belongings. Private insurance also has options to cover injuries and living expenses.

However, one advantage of NFIP is that it cannot cancel your coverage. Private insurance can opt against renewing your policy if the company finds the risks too high. Talk to multiple insurers to see what is best for your needs and work out the best rates possible.

Caring for Pets in an Emergency

Pets are family and should always be included in seniors' emergency plans. Below are some things to keep in mind when caring for your pets before and during a disaster.

  • Keep Important Documents Updated and Readily Accessible.
    Choose recent, clear photos of pets and put them in a file. Daylight pictures are best. Also, include the pets' vet and adoption papers. Get dogs and cats microchipped and ensure they have collars with updated contact information.
  • Select Backup Pet Caregiver(s)
    To ensure your pets don’t experience unnecessary stress during an emergency, they could go to a designated caregiver's home. Ideally, this person is someone you trust who lives nearby and who is home often to care for your pets. This way, your pets don't have to go to a shelter. You can be assured that your pets are in a safe place and being taken care of.
  • Prepare Emergency Kits for Them
    In addition to three days' worth of food and water for your pets, prepare a few more things just for them. This cuts down on evacuation time and stress.
  • Paper towels
  • Collapsible water dishes and food bowls
  • 2 week supply of any medications if your pet(s) is on any
  • Poop bags for easy clean-up
  • Scoopable litter if you have a cat
  • Liquid dish soap and disinfectant
  • Pet carrier or bag for each pet
  • Recent photos in case they get lost and you need to use photos for reference
  • Extra leash and harness if you have a dog
  • Disposable litter trays if you have a cat
  • Your pet’s favorite toys
  • Wet wipes
  • Do Not Leave Them Behind!
    Do not leave pets at home when you evacuate. If it's not safe for you to be home, it certainly isn't safe for them. Plan ahead and line up a few designated caregivers in case they become necessary. Otherwise, research boarding facilities. Many vets offer boarding services, and some animal shelters take in pets during disasters.


Natural disasters are stressful, especially for seniors. Fortunately, planning goes a long way. Running drills and having an emergency kit ready to go means you're two steps closer to surviving a disaster intact. Don't waste critical minutes panicking. Plan now—better safe than sorry.

Additional Resources

AAHA – This website provides additional information on caring for your pets during emergencies.

Red Cross – Find out more on why it’s so important to have a personal support network when you’re a senior preparing for any emergency.

Ready.gov – Check out how to respond to specific disasters such as hurricanes, landslides, power outages, extreme heat, and earthquakes.

Insurance Information Institute – Learn more about the importance of home insurance and the different options available to seniors.