In 2022, California suffered more than 20 states of emergency or major disaster declarations due to weather or natural disasters. The unprecedented series of winter storms that pummeled the state caused power outages ranging from 12 hours to two weeks for more than 7 million Californians and thousands of evacuation orders.
We often think about displacements or loss of power as temporary—and for many people that’s true. But for others, such as older adults with significant health and social needs, a temporary displacement or sustained outage can dramatically compromise their long-term well-being. It is crucial that communities help local older adults prepare not just for the days immediately following a weather-related emergency, but also for the weeks or months of disruptions that can have long-term consequences on their physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, older Californians are increasingly impacted by natural disasters. They are more likely to live in rural areas, where the risk of wildfires is greater. They are also more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, with California estimated by climate assessments to experience two to three times more deaths due to heat waves in coming years. And just as the likelihood of these severe events is growing, so is the senior population. By 2030, one in five Californians will be over the age of 65, putting them at increased risk when it comes to natural disasters.
The stress from these emergencies impacts a myriad of health outcomes for older adults. The need for mental health services increases following natural disasters. Not surprisingly, the loss of one’s home contributes to depression and anxiety. When there are disruptions to transportation and electricity, it can result in health care interruptions to the estimated 85% of older adults with one or more chronic care needs—such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease—and those adults fare far worse when disaster hits. The inability to refill prescriptions or replace health care supplies, like oxygen tanks or insulin strips, can cause adverse health events that may be difficult or impossible to recover from.
During my time advocating for community-based health care for California’s older adults, I’ve learned that a simple missed step in daily care can spiral into disastrous outcomes. I’ve also seen firsthand how communities play a critical role in ensuring that older adults are spared some of the life-altering implications of these events.
At a broader level, local governments can do their best to integrate evacuation planning that prioritizes keeping social groups together by relocating neighborhoods rather than individual households. When older adults maintain their familiar social connections, such as with neighbors or loved ones, rates of mental illness and cognitive impairment following a disaster are lower, and overall health in the years following the event is higher.
But the community also plays an integral role in maintaining critical chronic care in the aftermath of a disaster. Offering your neighbors rides to appointments or picking up prescriptions when normal transportation is disrupted can prevent an onslaught of health complications. Knowing what to do to help is having a clear plan in place. A written list of short and long-term medical and well-being needs before experiencing an emergency can be the critical difference when one strikes. Help a family member, friend or neighbor complete this downloadable free resource to get their needs and preferences in place.
Growing up in California, I have experienced the power of our communities coming together during these pivotal and sometimes life-changing moments. But we can’t wait until those moments are upon us to act—we must take action now to prepare the most vulnerable members of our community. Planning and preparation could very well save a life.
Wil Yu is general manager of CCA Health California, a Medicare Advantage plan.