This blog was contributed by Olivia Small, Knowledge Management Officer at Age UK.
Hurricane Harvey created utter devastation, loss of life, and mass flooding in Texas. Many distressing images emerged of individuals fleeing their homes, and entire neighbourhoods under water. Perhaps most shocking was the image captured of care home residents trapped in water up to their waists. Not long after, Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and caused unprecedented destruction including the death of six people at a nursing home in Florida. This should serve as a wakeup call to us in the UK, to ensure that the needs of our ageing population are fully reflected in our emergency planning.
In July, we were hit with flooding of our own. A small coastal village on the Cornish south coast received approximately 8 inches of rain in just three hours – three times the normal monthly average for July.
Although these are unusual events, are they something that we should be expecting more of as a consequence of climate change? Will extreme weather events become an increasing trend across the UK and the world, and are we really prepared to protect our most vulnerable members of society?
This year, the annual UK Climate Risk Assessment found that climate change is expected to increase the frequency, severity and extent of flooding. At present an estimated 1.8 million people in the UK are living in areas at significant risk of river, surface water or coastal flooding. This figure is projected to rise to at least 2.6 million individuals by the 2050s.
We know that many older people live in coastal and rural areas and may therefore make up a large proportion of those at risk of flooding. Furthermore, research has shown that older people, especially those already in poor health or living alone, are particularly vulnerable to weather-related hazards, along with other groups such as those with physical disabilities or mental health problems.
In addition, the population aged over 75 is set to increase from 8% in 2015 to 18% by 2085. We need to take account of this demographic change in planning for a future with more extreme weather events, including flooding. Flood risk communication needs to be at the forefront of this, ensuring that information is readily available, particularly to those who do not have internet access or those who are socially isolated. This will enable individuals to take the necessary steps to prepare for the prospect of flooding. Local Age UKs are an integral part of this, offering information and advice on preparing for floods, storms and power loss, as well as helping older people to claim insurance and rebuild their lives following a flood. More information on this can be found in our report ‘Older people and power loss, floods and storms’.
But we also need local authorities, health commissioners, and care providers to take proactive steps in crisis planning now to account for our ageing population. Emergency preparedness needs to be built into service continuity plans and individuals’ care plans to ensure that older people, whether they live in care homes or in the local community, can feel reassured that there will be adequate provision in the increasingly likely eventuality of a weather related emergency affecting them.