Helping King County’s older adults prepare for emergencies

Esther Lee, DCHS Policy and Community Engagement Program Manager

Every September organizations and local governments across the country observe National Preparedness Month to raise awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies that could happen at any time. This year, the nationwide theme “Take Control in 1, 2, 3” focuses on preparing older adults for disasters, specifically older adults from communities that are disproportionally impacted by hazardous events.  

To learn more about DCHS’ work to prepare older adults for emergencies in King County, Taylor Gaston, the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy Community Liaison, sat down with Esther Lee, who serves as a Policy and Community Engagement Project/Program Manager with the Older Adults and Healthy Aging (OAHA) Unit within the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) Adult Services Division. 

Esther, can you tell me about your experience with emergency preparedness as it relates to Older Adults?  

Outside of writing a capstone paper on federal emergency management contractors in graduate school, it had only been an area of fascination based on personal experiences with learning the value of being prepared for anything. I grew up in an intergenerational immigrant community that was just trying to make ends meet, so the concept of emergency preparedness felt far away until the unexpected happened in 2001 during the Nisqually earthquake. Luckily, my family was not severely impacted, but I remember it left my family feeling helpless and uninformed.  

It wasn’t until I joined King County that I would find myself in this unique intersection of emergency preparedness for older adults.   

Tell us more, how did you start working in emergency preparedness at King County?  

A strong catalyst for my involvement in emergency preparedness was, of course, Covid-19 and how it disproportionately impacted and continues to impact older adults. There was a growing need for government agencies to mobilize and respond to emergencies impacting older adults, specifically, outside of the pandemic. Last year, I worked with the Seattle-King County Area Agency on Aging to organize an Aging Service Provider-specific Emergency Preparedness Forum with our partners at both King County and City of Seattle Offices of Emergency Management (Special shout out to my workgroup teammates, Mary Pat O’Leary and Dinah Stephens at the City of Seattle Aging and Disability Services!). The forum sparked a lot of interest in “preparedness” because of everyone’s recent experience with the pandemic. Shortly after the forum we received the John A. Hartford Foundation’s Age Friendly Public Health Systems grant via the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) that allowed us to continue the momentum on emergency preparedness.  

Why are isolated older adults and older adults with chronic diseases more vulnerable during emergency situations?  

Thanks for the framing of your question! It’s crucial to note that being an older adult does not make a person vulnerable. Social indicators of health such as lack of access to nutritious foods, affordable housing, and transportation can lead to chronic health conditions that can become further exacerbated in the event of an emergency such as an extreme heat or cold weather event.  

Physical and social isolation is a key determinant of adverse health outcomes for all people but older adults, especially. For isolated homebound older adults or those with mobility challenges, it can be especially difficult to access critical information or help in the event of an emergency. A support system is important and can look a variety of ways: a neighbor, a friend, a caregiver, a resident coordinator, chosen family or community such as those found at senior centers or faith institutions. There are many ways humans can find connection with one another and the pandemic demonstrated how interdependent we all are.  

For folks who may be wondering how older adults will be impacted during a wide-scale emergency like “The Big One,” the recent Covid-19 pandemic is a good indication. What we saw was a disproportionate number of deaths from older adults, in King County, 79% of Covid-19 deaths were older adults 65 years of age and above, despite being 14.2% of the population. This disparity is even greater when we look at Covid-19 metrics related to death rate, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Alaska Native communities, Black and African American, and Hispanic communities have the highest weekly death counts over the entire pandemic.  

We also saw this in the 2021 Western North America heat wave event, where 68% of deaths in Washington state were older adults over 65. We are faced with the realities of extreme weather events in our region and globally, older adults are specifically impacted.  

However, our partners at King County and City of Seattle Emergency Management are dedicated and work collaboratively with the OAHA team and the Seattle-King County Area Agency on Aging to work towards filling these disparities and sharing information on how to be prepared. It doesn’t have to be this huge effort, small steps towards preparedness can go a long way and give peace of mind. Washington state has this helpful “Prepare in a Year Guide” if you’re looking for a place to start.  

You mentioned an Age Friendly Public Health Systems grant opportunity, what was your project? 

The John A. Hartford Foundation grant focused on supporting Age-Friendly Public Health Systems and we chose to home in on emergency preparedness for older adults. I worked with the Seattle-King County Area Agency on Aging to identify how we could use our $10,000 grant and the resources we had to reach the most people.  

Emergency kits provided to older adults at public housing-operated sites in King County

We purchased emergency kits for older adults ages 85 and above residing in public housing-operated sites. This population was identified based on research conducted by the British Columbia Coroner’s Report in Canada that showed significant health impacts and even death for older adults of this age. We overlaid this with the King County’s Heat Study Map to identify south Seattle and South King County as priority areas for this work. Thanks to a one-time allocation from the Veterans, Seniors & Human Services Levy, we were able to add preparedness items specifically tailored to older adults including heat mitigation items, such as a portable neck fan, and an older adults-specific visual communication guide. We developed an enhanced visual communication guide illustrating important items older adults may need in an emergency. We then worked with our partners at the King County Housing Authority and Seattle Housing Authority to distribute the kits. It was a true multi-sector collaboration!  We also partnered with our fellow government entities within the City of Seattle and King County, to highlight the ways in which senior centers have responded to emergencies like the pandemic and what would be needed to continue supporting their emergency preparedness role in their communities. We started by surveying the senior centers to identify and assess their response capacity. We had a considerably strong response rate!  

We know senior centers response during the pandemic was extraordinary and the survey showed us that to build their capacity to respond to future emergencies, more resources would be needed. Staffing and workforce stability continues to be a huge challenge across the community but especially for senior centers.  

What’s next for emergency preparedness for older adults in King County?  

In honor of National Preparedness Month and National Senior Center Month, OAHA is teaming up with the King County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to offer preparedness training to five senior centers. These senior centers were selected based on prioritization of senior centers in unincorporated areas and those with connections to historically marginalized communities. In September training was held at El Centro de la Raza and International Drop-In Center Filipino Senior & Family Services. In early October additional trainings will take place at Central Area Senior Center, Federal Way Senior Center, and Vashon Senior Center.  

King County DCHS and OEM staff present emergency preparedness tips and resources to older adults at senior centers in King County.

OAHA will continue to work with the Seattle-King County Area Agency on Aging and our OEM partners to support older adults in preparing for emergencies. This work is all about relationships and this sense of community care. Even with personal preparedness, a key piece is using the buddy system, knowing your neighbor, and identifying who is in your “pod.” A quote that always grounds me and gives tremendous purpose to this work is from the late community organizer who passed away at 100 years of age, Grace Lee Boggs, “The only way to survive is by taking care of each other.”