11/01/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Jan 01, 2013

Seniors and Storms

In speaking at the Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, President Obama urged concerned Americans living in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's path to look out for their neighbors, especially older people. Major weather events -- including hurricanes and flooding -- and other extreme weather, such as heat waves and blizzards, impact older and disabled people disproportionately, especially vulnerable ones who live alone. President Obama was wise to call on community members to look out for their elderly neighbors.

Loss of power can be especially difficult for older people who have visual impairments, difficulty moving around the house, and few resources stocked up. While many of us see bad weather in the forecast and can stock up on drinking water, large packages of food, and flashlight batteries, older people who do not drive -- or who struggle with ambulation -- have trouble accessing supplies and making advanced preparations such as shoring up windows and moving garbage cans and outdoor furniture. In addition to loss of lighting in a blackout, the inability to use heat or air conditioning can impact frail older people more intensely than the rest of us. As we age, our body's thermoregulation mechanisms change. Due to normal aging processes, older people who are hot may not perspire and cool themselves off properly. Alternatively, older people in cold climates may have a harder time keeping themselves warm. In addition, many medications older people take affect their bodies' ability to regulate temperatures. In extreme hot and cold weather, older people are more at risk of dying from exposure.

In addition to physiological reasons why older people fare worse in extreme weather, there are psychological issues as well. In the case of extreme heat and cold, some people may not use their air conditioning or heat because they don't want to spend the money or they don't think they really need it. On a practical level, some older adults may not be able to see the small numbers on the thermostat to turn it on or make it work correctly. Furthermore, others who are living on fixed incomes truly cannot afford to run their heat or air conditioning. There are programs to help. November is the month when low income people can apply to their state for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The psychological concept of attachment to place impacts older people in events like hurricanes, floods, and wild fires. For example, older people who have been living in the same home for several decades may not be willing to leave the house quickly in an emergency. Packing up one's lifetime in a few minutes' time is a difficult task for all of us. The memories associated with living in a place for 20, 40, or 60 years can make quick exits extremely difficult, especially if the house represents lost loved ones or relationships. Some people don't evacuate simply because they have physical disabilities, have no transportation, don't want to leave their pet, are waiting for a loved one who cannot reach them, or simply don't know where to go.

If older and disabled people live in your neighborhood, check in on them, ask them if they have plans in the event of an emergency, find out where their families live, and whether they need help getting in touch. Find out if they are planning to evacuate, and if not, consider why. The reasons might be different than you think. If you do help them leave, be sure to remind them to bring medications, glasses, hearing aids, contact information for doctors and family members, and insurance cards with them.

In the aftermath of a major weather event , check older and disabled people in your neighborhood and find out if they have the resources they need and whether their intentions to stay put are realistic. Some communities' fire departments have registers where residents can choose to list their name for monitoring in the event of a disaster. Ask your local fire department whether it offers that service and to check on your neighbor. Engage your local church or synagogue to reach out. Set up a neighborhood watch--not for crime but for care. If your neighbors are disagreeable to assistance, let the police know if you think they are in danger or incapable of making decisions for themselves. Some older people may have memory problems that impair them from making safe choices.

Extreme weather also impacts older people staying in a hospital or residing in care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living. Since the devastating images of patients being abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public health campaigns, senior service providers, private agencies, and care facilities have been improving their emergency plans for the most susceptible patients. Right now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, next week, or before the next event, we all can reach out to our neighbors. You'll be grateful when it's your turn to need help.