After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, tens of thousands of senior citizens were stranded in their homes and high rises without access to food, water, heat, and medication. To prevent history from repeating itself, the New York Community Trust and the Altman Foundation banded together to study what can be done to protect seniors in such emergencies. What's more, the study looked at how older residents could play a leading role in responding to such disasters, along with local organizations.
“With extreme weather projected to increase, a new strategy is required to keep older adults, who are often among New York City’s most long-term, civically engaged residents, safe,” explained Dr. Jo Ivey Boufford, President of the New York Academy of Medicine. “Older people are also effective first responders, and should be seen as problem solvers in disasters rather than problems to be solved.”
New York City’s 1.4 million people age 60 and over constitute 17 percent of the city’s total population, and that number is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years. NYCT and Altman’s study found that individual preparedness isn’t enough. New York communities need to connect elderly adults with social networks long before disasters strike. Elderly populations face unique preparedness barriers, including a lack of savings, access to transportation, and comprehension difficulties. Put another way, a lot of these people are desperately poor, don't speak English, and have problems getting around. They are uniquely vulnerable when extreme weather hits.
These are four key findings of the study:
- Formal and informal social networks influenced older adults’ decisions and facilitated their access to information and assistance.
- Because older people had not been engaged in emergency planning, emergency services were often inadequate, inappropriate, or inaccessible, and basic and health care needs went unmet.
- Older adults actively supported their communities before, during, and after superstorm Sandy.
- The local neighborhood infrastructure was a critical factor in meeting the needs of older people within affected communities.
Based on these findings, the New York Academy of Medicine recommended 12 steps to community preparedness. Since NYCT and Altman funded the study, we wouldn’t be surprised to see these two foundations putting up money to help implement the solutions in the months and years ahead.
Some of these solutions will cost serious money, while others mainly require sustained attention and work. And there's a role for every sector here: public, private, and nonprofit.
To protect and involve New York’s elderly population, community preparedness programs should establish neighborhood planning hubs, support landlords with large concentrations of senior citizens, establish pharmacy laws during disasters, and collaborate with hospice and home care providers to develop emergency plans.
NYCT elderly grants are made under the Health and People with Special Needs umbrella and targeted at racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and those with chronic illnesses or mental or functional disabilities.
Similarly, the Altman Foundation has a Health grantmaking category that encompasses funding for vulnerable populations, like the elderly during natural disasters.
If both foundations heed the advice of the New York Academy of Medicine researchers, future elderly grants will be more focused on how communities can help and engage the elderly rather than encouraging seniors to prepare “go bags” or use other disaster coping mechanisms.
This research and grant strategy build upon the "Age-friendly New York City" collaborative, a public-private partnership created by the Office of the Mayor, the New York City Council, and the New York Academy of Medicine.