IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa researcher has undertaken an effort to help prepare seniors in the community in the event of a disaster, a move that has gained the attention of aging service providers across the state.
In 2013, University of Iowa College of Public Health Associate Professor Sato Ashida began an effort to understand how well-prepared elderly Iowans are in case of a natural disaster.
More than 514,000 people aged 65 and older were living in Iowa in 2016, accounting for 16.4 percent of the state’s population, according to the State Data Center of Iowa.
The number of Iowans aged of 65 and older is expected to reach more than 677,000 people by 2050, according to projections from the State Data Center. By that time, older Iowans will make up at least 20 percent of the majority of the state’s 99 counties.
Research indicates elderly are most at risk in the event of a natural disaster, compounded by mobility issues, chronic health conditions and other factors limiting access to emergency services.
Ashida points to the wildfire in Paradise, Calif., which swept through the region in November, as an example. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, more than 60 percent of those killed as a result of the fire were in their 70s, 80s or 90s.
Ashida started developing a project called PrepWise, an informational guide designed to help individuals through planning the next steps after an emergency, which she said gives participants a much better opportunity to cope with and recover from a natural disaster.
Steps include identifying three people to overcome a scenario, such as a person to help with shelter or transportation.
It also asks participants to list any health care issues first responders should be aware of, and to provide contact information of their health care provider.
“The big part is getting that person an emergency support network,” she said.
Ashida currently is moving forward with developing the project further after a follow-up study determined seniors want a web-based version of the PrepWise guide. Currently, it’s a printed booklet — something that could be lost in a flood or tornado.
Now, agencies and providers who work with those aged 65 and older are joining the conversation on disaster management in Iowa — a conversation that has led Ashida to being named as a policy fellow for the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy.
Agency officials believe if emergency management agencies had certain information about older Iowans, disaster response and recovery could be vastly improved for these individuals. However, there are barriers.
“For it to be useful for other agencies, they need access to that data. But it comes down to the issue of whether agencies can share personal information (of clients),” Ashida said.
Ashida said the project is “in its infancy.” The UI researcher plans to gather key stakeholders for a discussion on the best way to approach this data-sharing initiative.
“The way I was first doing this, I would maybe help 30 people. Now, we’re talking about thousands of people in Iowa,” she said.
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