New resources to protect Seniors before, during and after Natural Disasters

Published in RINewsToday on July 18, 2022

Just last year alone, the Washington, DC-based AARP noted that the nation experienced more than 1,300 tornadoes, 21 named storms (with winds of 39 mph or greater), nearly 59,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.13 million acres, along with numerous ice storms and other weather events that caused major damage and fatalities. With hurricane season now approaching, AARP teamed up with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announcing the release of new resources specifically designed to help local and state officials and Emergency Management Agency (EMA) officials protect seniors in their communities.

“By 2034, adults ages 65 and over will outnumber those under 18 in the United States for the first time. This has profound implications during natural disasters and extreme weather events,” said Nancy LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer at AARP, in a statement announcing the released resources. “State and local leaders and emergency officials must be better equipped and prepared to ensure that older adults are kept safe and their needs are met when a disaster strikes,” warns LeaMond.

The 9-page, Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, released by FEMA, highlights how natural hazards uniquely affect seniors and provides specific remedies as to how local mitigation and emergency planners can include seniors in community efforts to lower their risks.

Throughout its 44 pages, the AARP Disaster Resilience Took Kit features strategies to help local, state and community leaders and aging advocates reduce the risk and impact of disasters on older persons. 

The guide and tool kit are the result of a multi-year collaboration between AARP and FEMA to identify and provide resources, spark ideas and encourage organizations to better engage older Americans in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery operations. This long-term, strategic alliance aims to advance accessible, safe and livable communities for people of all ages, says AARP.

“Adults aged 65 and older are a growing demographic who are often disproportionately impacted by severe weather. These disparities can be compounded by other factors, such as low-income or chronic illness, producing inequitable results for this vulnerable population when it comes to disaster preparedness,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell in a statement. 

“Effective mitigation planning requires that we consider the needs of all populations, and FEMA’s partnership with AARP on these guides will help community planners ensure our older communities are more resilient in the face of hurricanes and other natural disaster,” she said.

According to AARP, a growing body of evidence compiled shows that seniors are disproportionately impacted by the types of weather-related emergencies and natural disasters that are becoming increasingly frequent and severe. Individuals who have chronic illnesses, functional limitations or disabilities are especially vulnerable, as evidenced by the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on seniors.  Not only are older people at a higher risk of death from infectious diseases and disasters, but the long-term effects on those who survive often undermine their physical and mental health, economic security and overall well-being.

Although many communities support older adults in preparation for disasters, expanded mitigation planning can help reduce the loss of life and property by minimizing the impact of disasters before they happen, says AARP, noting that mitigation actions and strategies that make cities, towns and neighborhoods safer for older adults can benefit all residents and increase community resilience overall.

Protecting Seniors from Natural Disasters in the Ocean State

“One standout recommendation from the AARP/FEMA report was the adoption of more resilient and efficient building and land use standards, including the consideration of hazards in siting senior living facilities,” says RI Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who oversees the Emergency Management Advisory Council that reviews information and programs regarding emergency management and makes recommendations to the Governor on these issues.

“One of my highest priorities is the creation of more affordable housing of every kind, and we have to walk the line of growing not only quickly, but thoughtfully. As we consider how to use this budget’s $250 million investment in housing, we want to ensure that new developments meet FEMA standards and will keep Rhode Islanders safe. We’re already working with local communities’ EMA departments to review their community disaster preparedness plans, as well as their applications for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants — funding to help implement exactly the strategies outlined in this report,” she says.

“One omission that stands out to me is resources for unhoused seniors. According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness’s 2021 State of Homelessness report, over 500 Rhode Islanders aged 55 or older experienced homelessness over the course of a year. We need to strongly consider what kinds of hazard mitigation strategies could help this uniquely vulnerable population. Additionally, Rhode Island must especially focus on preparing sustainable mitigation and response systems that account for the effect of climate change on our coastal communities, which we know have large senior populations and will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding,” says Matos.

”FEMA has provided a very valuable tool with the Guide to Expanding Mitigation – Making the Connection to Older Adults guide. At the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency,  we work with our local emergency managers, non-profits (Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Red Cross of Rhode Island, United Way and more) and other state agencies including the Department of Health and the Office of Healthy Aging to ensure older Rhode Islanders have the resources they need when disaster strikes. These reports will help us in our efforts to continue to support individuals in this vulnerable group,” says Director Marc Pappas, of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

“Preparedness is a core function of public health. This is especially true when it comes to climate change and older adults. As these resources highlight, it is critical that the unique needs of older adults are considered when planning for weather-related emergencies and natural disasters. This is already a priority for us at the Rhode Island Department of Health when it comes to emergency preparedness, and it will continue to be a focus,” says Joseph Wendelken, Public Relation Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Before, during and after a natural disaster, the safety and wellbeing of older Rhode Islanders must always be a top concern,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor

“Emergency planners and managers at the state and especially local levels, along with first responders and many others, play a critical role in reducing anxiety and any subsequent harm when disaster strikes. Whether it’s a hurricane, flooding, extreme heat or infectious disease, ongoing planning and the coordination of all available resources is necessary to minimize consequences,” says Taylor.

“The AARP/FEMA guide and toolkit can go a long way towards mitigating deaths and long-term impacts among Rhode Island’s most vulnerable citizens. We encourage all leaders involved in Rhode Island public safety and public health to take advantage of this new resource. There are many aspects of age-friendly, livable communities – resilience in the face of disaster is chief among them,” Taylor adds.

AARP Rhode Island Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell has firsthand disaster management experience. “As a former Division Commander with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary and Community Emergency Response Team Instructor for Providence Emergency Management Agency, I am actively involved with emergency & disaster mitigation, response and recovery efforts that dramatically and profoundly impact our older population physically, emotionally and financially,” he said. 

“Not only are seniors often hit first and hardest but their families are deeply affected as well,” Mitchell added. “We hope to save lives throughout the community, mitigate damages and reduce injury by vigorously distributing the new guide and toolkit to our members and the community at large.”

West Warwick resident Vincent Marzullo gives a thumbs up to AARP/FEMA’s released resources, saying that their information will be extremely valuable to the State and local EMA officials charged with protecting the state’s aging and vulnerable population during natural disasters. “Several barriers prevent older adults from evacuating when needed. Many older adults cannot drive and do not have access to reliable, accessible public transportation, depend on home-based medical equipment, require specialized accessibility supports, or cannot bring pets when evacuating. Some older adults are caregivers to spouses or partners with one or more vulnerabilities that may also hinder their ability to take timely action and remain safe, says Marzullo, who served for 31 years as a federal civil rights & social justice director for the Corporation for National & Community Service and a Federal Disaster Cadre Coordinator for the National Service Agency.

“State and local EMA officials must regularly outreach to the older Rhode Islander on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s “Special Needs Emergency Registry” to check their status/needs, especially individuals who are isolated and immobile.  There are approximately 15,000 individuals with chronic illnesses that have opted-in to the registry in order to be checked in times of emergency/disasters.  These older adults are vulnerable and need periodic support,” says Marzullo.

Marzullo calls for on-going disaster resilience webinars to be available to better prepare State and local EMA officials and organizations to respond to sudden natural disasters.  Targeted organizations might include the Red Cross, AARP RI, Senior Agenda Coalition of RI, Senior Center Directors Association, AARP members, RIElder Info, 211/The Point, and the Emergency Management Advisory Council (EMAC).

Melissa Carden, RIEMA’s Chief Public Affairs Officer says while winter storms, hurricanes and flooding are most common in the Ocean State, expect climate change to have a profound effect on the weather, including more storms and greater precipitation. “This fuels other extreme weather events like flooding (coastal and inland – remember the flooding in RI in 2010). Although scientists are uncertain whether climate change will lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes, there is more confidence that warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to increase their intensity and impacts.”

 To view and download the Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, visit  https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_mitigation-guide_older-

adults.pdf

To download a PDF of the AARP Disaster Resilience Tool Kit, featuring strategies to help local, state and community leaders and advocates reduce the risk and impacts of disasters on older adults, go to  https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/2022/AARP%20Disaster%20Resilience%20Tool%20Kit-singles-060122-.pdf

The following (free) Livable Publication booklets and guides, go to https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/livable-publications-order-form/https://www.homecareassistancerhodeisland.com/

Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

             Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com