By Tamara Mathias

(Reuters Health) – While most older adults say they are confident they’re ready to handle emergencies like natural disasters or power outages, many are not as prepared as they could be for these events, a new U.S. poll suggests.

The University of Michigan in partnership with Washington D.C.-based non-profit AARP conducted a new edition of the National Poll on Healthy Aging in May and released the findings recently.

The survey, which is conducted several times a year on various topics around aging, sought for the first time to assess how prepared seniors are for emergency situations.

“Recent hurricanes, flooding and wildfires have devastated parts of the U.S., and in each of these disasters, older adults have been particularly affected,” said Sue Anne Bell, a researcher at the School of Nursing of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who worked with the poll team.

“This poll can help those working in healthy-aging or emergency-preparedness organizations for seniors know where gaps in preparedness are and where a greater emphasis can be placed.”

The poll found that nearly half of a nationally-representative sample of 2,249 adults aged 50 to 80 either did not know if their community had an emergency alert system or had not yet signed up to receive alerts.

Just over half of the survey participants said they had the recommended seven days’ worth of food and water on hand, while even fewer had cell phone chargers and radios that didn’t require electrical power.

Less than a third of respondents had prepared emergency kits with essential supplies and medicines to get them through an emergency at home or to take with them in an evacuation.

“Taking steps now to build a kit with essential supplies is one strong recommendation I would make based on the poll results,” Bell said.

Geriatrician Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said he was surprised the poll showed only 1 in 4 respondents who use essential medical equipment that requires electricity have an alternative power source.

“(This) is a must . . . These power sources should be charged and ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Dharmarajan, who wasn’t involved in the poll.

Bell agrees.

“A power loss could have huge health consequences for those who depend on these devices, such as a home dialysis machine or an oxygen concentrator.”

Although three-quarters of those polled said they had experienced at least one major emergency in their lifetime and more than one fifth had experienced one in the past year, only 40% said they had spoken with close family or friends about preparing for potential emergencies.

Groups tasked with promoting emergency preparedness should consider new strategies to engage with older adults who may not already be well-prepared for emergencies, the poll team advises in their report.

“Healthcare professionals who care for older adults should consider discussing disaster preparedness, particularly in areas that routinely face natural disasters,” they write.

On the positive side, the poll did show that 82% of older adults maintained one week’s supply of their medications, and 72% said they had a week’s worth of other health supplies.

Dharmarajan noted that there is a dearth of formal guidelines on basic preparedness for seniors.

While recommendations from the federal government and Red Cross exist, they don’t go into much detail about the number of days of food supply one should have handy, or the need for secondary power sources, he said.

“Physicians historically have not done a great job at advising patients on emergency preparedness,” he added. “Moreover, most patients do not expect to hear about it from their physician. However, when the topic is brought up as a health issue, I’ve never had a patient be unwilling to engage in the discussion.”

SOURCE: National Poll on Healthy Aging, online September 4, 2019.