Journal of Gerontological Nursing

LEGAL ISSUES 

Natural Disasters and the Vulnerability of the Elderly

Kay Weiler, RN, MA, JD

Abstract

Almost every day the news media confronts most Americans with the reality that multiple areas of this country recently have faced harsh conditions due to natural disasters. Hurricanes in the South, the Great Flood of 1993 in the Midwest, and raging forest fires in California have claimed their spot in the national news headlines. Many of us have watched or experienced the immediate consequences of those events. We have identified the hundreds of families with homes and jobs, and the communities that suddenly have been devastated by a natural power. However, in viewing or experiencing the ruin, the consequences of these events and threats to the elderly have been less obvious.

The immediate needs of all families, including the elderly, are shelter, food, water, and clothing. These short-term needs are then replaced with the longterm needs of finding temporary housing and food supplies, and replacement of lost or destroyed medications, eye glasses, hearing aids, or other assistive devices. Nurses have certainly assisted in meeting these immediate and longterm needs in health care for all families, including the elderly.

Some of the families who suddenly became homeless were fortunate and received the support and assistance of family members, close friends or legitimate insurance, banking, and financial representatives. Others, however, especially the displaced, financially insecure and elderly, were overwhelmed by the requirements of bureaucratic red tape and offers of "quick fixes" or settlements for damage or loss of their home.

If the area qualifies for federal disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates the federal assistance program. If an elderly client applies for this federal assistance program, the nurse may assist the client in collecting information and evidence about the type and extent of loss that the client has experienced. The evidence may include lists of items purchased and destroyed or pictures of the damaged home. Nurses also may assist the elderly by learning about federal assistance application deadlines, essential forms to be completed, guidelines for filing applications, telephone information "hotlines," and the documentation required to verify (after payment of the requested funds) that money provided by the federal assistance program was spent on the identified items.

In addition to assisting individual clients, nurses may help the elderly by attending seminars presented by FEMA representatives, insurance agencies, banks, or other businesses designed to address the various resources available for re-establishing the person's home or business, for example, private insurance policies, short-term, lowinterest loans or private business offers (free services or reduced costs by reputable business not affected by the disaster). The seminars also identify the potential risks of attempting to purchase goods or services from vendors who are not established businesses in the area. Nurses may assist the elderly client by cautioning the client to examine a contractor's or subcontractor's credentials. If the elderly client employs an unproven contractor to assist in the rebuilding, repair or refurbishment of his or her home, the client risks paying for inadequate, incomplete, or unsafe repairs or replacements.

Caring for the elderly and other vulnerable clients in the aftermath of a natural disaster is difficult at best. After the immediate crisis, nurses may be able to assist clients in exploring avenues of support available for re-establishing their homes, business, communities, and daily lives.…

Almost every day the news media confronts most Americans with the reality that multiple areas of this country recently have faced harsh conditions due to natural disasters. Hurricanes in the South, the Great Flood of 1993 in the Midwest, and raging forest fires in California have claimed their spot in the national news headlines. Many of us have watched or experienced the immediate consequences of those events. We have identified the hundreds of families with homes and jobs, and the communities that suddenly have been devastated by a natural power. However, in viewing or experiencing the ruin, the consequences of these events and threats to the elderly have been less obvious.

The immediate needs of all families, including the elderly, are shelter, food, water, and clothing. These short-term needs are then replaced with the longterm needs of finding temporary housing and food supplies, and replacement of lost or destroyed medications, eye glasses, hearing aids, or other assistive devices. Nurses have certainly assisted in meeting these immediate and longterm needs in health care for all families, including the elderly.

Some of the families who suddenly became homeless were fortunate and received the support and assistance of family members, close friends or legitimate insurance, banking, and financial representatives. Others, however, especially the displaced, financially insecure and elderly, were overwhelmed by the requirements of bureaucratic red tape and offers of "quick fixes" or settlements for damage or loss of their home.

If the area qualifies for federal disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates the federal assistance program. If an elderly client applies for this federal assistance program, the nurse may assist the client in collecting information and evidence about the type and extent of loss that the client has experienced. The evidence may include lists of items purchased and destroyed or pictures of the damaged home. Nurses also may assist the elderly by learning about federal assistance application deadlines, essential forms to be completed, guidelines for filing applications, telephone information "hotlines," and the documentation required to verify (after payment of the requested funds) that money provided by the federal assistance program was spent on the identified items.

In addition to assisting individual clients, nurses may help the elderly by attending seminars presented by FEMA representatives, insurance agencies, banks, or other businesses designed to address the various resources available for re-establishing the person's home or business, for example, private insurance policies, short-term, lowinterest loans or private business offers (free services or reduced costs by reputable business not affected by the disaster). The seminars also identify the potential risks of attempting to purchase goods or services from vendors who are not established businesses in the area. Nurses may assist the elderly client by cautioning the client to examine a contractor's or subcontractor's credentials. If the elderly client employs an unproven contractor to assist in the rebuilding, repair or refurbishment of his or her home, the client risks paying for inadequate, incomplete, or unsafe repairs or replacements.

Caring for the elderly and other vulnerable clients in the aftermath of a natural disaster is difficult at best. After the immediate crisis, nurses may be able to assist clients in exploring avenues of support available for re-establishing their homes, business, communities, and daily lives.

10.3928/0098-9134-19940201-09

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