By Dr. Dan Dodgen, Director of the Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health, and Community Resilience, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Hurricane season is fast approaching and disaster preparedness should be something that everybody, including older Americans, is thinking about. It only takes one hurricane to change your life and your community. But that one hurricane can do some serious damage, especially if you aren’t ready for it.
Bouncing back after a storm isn’t just a matter of rebuilding your home, cleaning up or treating injuries. Preparing to take care of your behavioral health needs is an important part of being ready for a storm, especially for older adults.
After a disaster, it is common for families and individuals to feel stress and anxiety over their health and safety – and this affects people in different ways. In some cases, this leads to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can disrupt daily routines, and make it harder for many people to remember things or solve problems. If such mental health issues arise, there is help available 24/7 through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s disaster Distress Helpline (Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746).
So how can older adults make it more likely that they will be able to bounce back? A recent study shows that maintaining meaningful relationships and connecting with your friends, family and community before a disaster strikes can help you weather the storm.
The study, which was funded by HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, examined 2,205 New Jersey residents between the ages of 54 and 80 who lived through Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Participants were asked about the severity of their exposure to the hurricane and how close-knit their community was, and what PTSD-type symptoms they suffered from eight to 33 months after the storm hit. The study found that the impact of the storm on PTSD symptoms was far less for people who had social support than those who did not. Essentially, having people in your life who will listen, give you advice, care, and be there for you if you need them matters.
These findings are particularly important for preparedness efforts because they suggest that those who feel more connected to friends, family and community are more likely to stay healthy or feel increased life satisfaction. As communities, our public health efforts need to focus on ways to increase support networks to promote disaster resilience. Participating in activities to foster civic engagement and social cohesion – both before and after a hurricane – are just a few ways that we can all take action and prevent post-traumatic stress in individuals.
As hurricane season approaches and you are getting ready, think about yourself, your friends and your family members, and consider the following questions: do you know your community members, do you know who needs the most help, do you think community members generally try to help each other out, and how attached are you to your community?
Also think about things that you can do to increase the level of mutual trust and support in the community. This month is also Older American’s month and this year’s theme is Blaze a Trail, which encourages activities, inclusion, and wellness for older Americans in your community. Consider blazing a trail toward civic engagement. Volunteering and community service are great ways older Americans can stay engaged in the community. In addition, sharing stories or participating in activities through local schools or special groups also can be good ways to stay active and involved in the community, and form new and lasting relationships.
If you are or know an older adult, use this month before hurricane season to make sure you are disaster-ready. Become more prepared and more connected to your friends, family, loved ones, and neighbors by sharing your evacuation plan, as well as any contingency plans for medications or medical devices that you may need in the event of an evacuation. Encourage your family and friends to check in regularly and know your routine. If you have older friends, plan together and be ready to check in on them as well. Participating in civic engagement and strengthening your ties to friends, family and community help you be better protected from physical or emotional harm.
If you are interested in learning more about social connectedness and resilience, please visit www.phe.gov/abc to find informative resources from HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.