Emergency preparedness for older people – a whole of community concern?
By Louise Sutcliffe, Project Officer, Meals on Wheels NSW
The recent Black Summer fires 2019-20 followed by Covid-19 and the ongoing impacts of climate change are having dramatic impacts on all of our communities. During these times of crisis, we all know and support many people in our community who are vulnerable. People are vulnerable for many reasons; they may lack the language or digital skills to access information in a time of emergency, or have physical barriers such as a chronic illness or mobility issues that place them at greater risk.
Vulnerable older adults are particularly at risk. They can often be isolated because they live by themselves, they sometimes don’t have access to their own transport because they have lost their licence, can’t afford the ongoing cost of a car or simply are unable to drive, they may have chronic health conditions or cognitive impairment which also can make their safety needs higher.
Between 2014 and 2019 66% of house fatalities alone involved people 65 and older (Fire and Rescue NSW 2019)
What we have learnt from the Black Summer fires, the floods and now COVID-19, is that keeping people safe, particularly those who are vulnerable in our community, must be a whole of community effort.
One government department or local community service provider cannot do it alone. The effort needs to be embraced at so many different levels, both government and community.
Before the Black Summer fires, the messaging from Emergency Services was clear, we can’t expect that emergency services will be there for every household to help them evacuate or protect homes. When the Black Summer fires hit, the bushfires raged simultaneously in so many communities at one time that more than 3000 homes were destroyed and 33 people died, despite our best efforts. We know that we must all do more as individuals and as a community to take all the necessary steps to be prepared and to know what to do if an emergency situation arises.
Being prepared prior to an emergency event is key to improving the odds, particularly for older people who need support to live at home safely in the community, where lack of transportation, isolation, communication difficulties and disability can add to the complexity of the situation, particularly where evacuation is required.
In collaboration with our key partners, Meals on Wheels NSW has developed ACT! A Collaborative Toolkit: Preparing Older People for Emergencies to assist home support providers and other community service organisations to empower older people to make decisions about preparing for emergencies such as bushfires, housefires, storms, heatwaves and floods.
It builds on older people’s knowledge of local risks, initiating and supporting individual discussions around what they can do to prepare, providing concise, practical information and linking in appropriate supports, when required. It also builds the capacity of home support providers to train their staff and volunteers on how to discuss emergency preparedness with clients and make referrals to emergency services for assistance.
This toolkit and all resources are now available for the aged care sector to use (see the resources on the Meals on Wheels website at https://nswmealsonwheels.org.au/ACT) and the feedback so far has been very positive from aged care providers, many of whom have been looking for a resource such as this, particularly since the summer fires.
The main concern that some providers now face is having the time and staff/volunteer capacity to implement the toolkit. This is complicated by the current COVID-19 crisis, with services having to re-design the way they provide services to older people in the community.
As part of the ACT! project, our independent evaluator, Robin Miles, Principal Consultant from the Miller Group, identified the following:
“The key to the success of the project is that the tools and process (including training) developed by ACT! facilitate one-on-one conversations between at-risk older adults and a trusted person from their home support provider. These one-on-one conversations are based upon a client empowerment model and occur in the safety and comfort of the client’s own home…… The pre-existing relationship between the service provider and the client is vital to ensuring that the messages are clearly received and that awareness of local risks are understood but do not raise unnecessary anxiety or alarm in the client.”
For these conversations to happen successfully, Robin indicates several things are required including:
"Sufficient resourcing is required from the relevant funding bodies so that service providers can deliver ACT! effectively. Funding is needed to cover training costs, to ensure that staff and volunteers are well supported in the delivery of ACT! and finally that ACT! – which can deliver benefits to the wider community concerned with the safety and wellbeing of at-risk older adults - does not create too much of an additional impost on staff and volunteers.”
(to access the full evaluation report go to: https://nswmealsonwheels.org.au/NswMealsOnWheels/media/ACT/ACT!-Preparing-Older-People-for-Emergencies-Evaluation-Final-Report-June-2020.pdf
We invite all in the community sector to register to use the Toolkit which is available freely at:
ACT! Toolkit Info and Registration
We also call on our community sector stakeholders and peak bodies to support us in asking the government to:
1. Improve/increase funding from local, state and federal governments to support CHSP, Aged Care providers, local community service providers including neighbourhood centres and others at the front line of keeping our communities safe
2. increase the flexibility of current funding models across multiple programs that target vulnerable people to ensure that emergency preparedness is embraced and seen as core business.
Neither emergency services nor the community/aged care sector can do it on their own. Both have much to offer but need a clear government commitment to flexible, local responses which are acknowledged and resourced.
For further information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org BD
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