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As the baby boomers age and increasing numbers of older Americans choose to live at home rather than in long-term care facilities, governments face new challenges trying to plan for and respond to disasters.
One way to keep track of people is registries, and Florida is likely the only state that requires localities to keep registries of people who would need special assistance before, during or after an emergency, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Florida’s registry, which is updated every year, alerts local emergency management agencies of people with physical, mental, cognitive or sensory disabilities. It also gives older adults the chance to preauthorize emergency workers to enter their home so they can help, when needed, as fast as possible. Emergency management planners work with home health agencies, hospices, home medical equipment providers, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and the departments of health and elderly affairs to get the necessary information.
“There’s a misperception that older adults who need the most help are in facilities,” says Margaret Moore, a public health advisor for the CDC’s Healthy Aging Program, which compiled a comprehensive guide to help states and localities aid older adults during emergencies.
Disasters hit older Americans harder than most. When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than 70 percent of the storm’s victims in Louisiana were over the age of 60, according to the CDC.
Though Florida is likely the only state to require municipalities to keep track this information, registries are used for disaster planning throughout the country. Some registries, as in Florida, track a broad range of people with ”special needs,” while others have more specific registries that, for example, identify people who need help securing transportation during evacuations or people who have medical conditions that prevent them from evacuating without assistance.
During Hurricane Katrina, according to Moore, planeloads of older adults were flown to safe harbor in Arkansas but their sense of relief was short-lived upon realizing that their medications and medical equipment like oxygen tanks and walkers didn’t make the trip with them. Having a medical registry in place may have prevented people from being separated from their medical equipment.
Registries are just one way localities can plan for disasters, but according to Moore, the places that aid the elderly during emergencies the most effectively are those that have strong, ongoing relationships with their area’s aging agency – which includes Florida.
“It’s not so much the plan that gets written that’s important,” she says. “The important thing is that people sit down, talk about what could happen and get to know all the different people in every sector. If you know who to call, that makes all the difference.”