Aging Well: Preparing for the unthinkable |

Aging Well: Preparing for the unthinkable

Evacuation preparedness

VNA Emergency Preparedness and Response Coordinator Jim Johnsen is gathering contact information of older and/or disabled adults who may need special notification or additional help during a disaster or evacuation. This information will be passed on to local emergency dispatch offices. To include your name on the list, call Johnsen at 871-7632.


For more information about preparing for disaster/evacuation, visit this site or this site.

For an emergency preparedness checklist, visit this site.

For information about preparing pets or horses for disaster, visit"> this site.

Editor’s note: This article originally was published Feb. 23, 2009. It has been updated for relevancy.

The “it can’t happen here” mentality makes Jim Johnsen’s job challenging.

When he’s not helping coordinate local emergency response, Johnsen educates people about how to prepare for devastating fires, floods or other man-made or natural disasters likely to happen, at some point, in our remote region of the state.

The salmonella outbreak that cut off the Alamosa city water supply for three weeks in 2008, or the Hayman fire that destroyed 132 Colorado homes in 2002, are examples of how large-scale emergencies can, and do, happen outside of big cities.

Wildfire, a threat which continues to escalate because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in our forests, is among potential disaster situations in Northwest Colorado.

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The current mild winter could make for a very challenging situation for wild land fire prevention efforts this summer, said Johnsen, who is the emergency preparedness and response coordinator with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

His aim, however, isn’t to scare people. It’s to send the message that residents, as well as emergency responders, are responsible for preparing for disasters.

“It’s got to start at home first,” Johnsen said.

Good preparation, including an emergency plan and “go-kit,” is particularly important for older adults and caregivers because of mobility, hearing and vision problems or conditions making it difficult for elders to respond to emergencies and evacuations.

Five minutes

Offices of emergency management make and carry out evacuation plans. Managers consider weather forecasts, input from fire departments, federal land management agencies, water boards and other information when making evacuation decisions.

Officials typically notify residents of emergencies and evacuations with reverse 911 calls (land lines only) and neighborhood patrol.

People should be prepared for the worst-case evacuation scenario — having only five minutes to leave their home. Amid the panic and confusion, it’s going to be hard enough for them to get their family and pets out much less important items, Johnsen said.

Grabbing a “go-kit,” or suitcase with rollers containing essential items, will ensure a person will have what they need in a shelter or away from home.

The kit should include sleeping gear, a blanket, money, identification, extra set of clothing, personal hygiene products, comfort items and copies of important documents such as deeds, passports and insurance policies — even if the originals are in a bank safe deposit box (in case the bank is inaccessible).

Older adults or their caregivers also should include a three-day supply of medications, copies of prescriptions, doctor contact information and pertinent supplies.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also recommends individuals wear medical alert tags or bracelets and, if they have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, enroll in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program.

Emergency plan

An important component of emergency preparedness is an emergency plan that includes alternate evacuation routes and a communication plan.

Instead of wasting evacuation time on the phone, or relying on cell phones, which may not work during emergencies because of network overload, people should establish a person out of the area that family members can call to keep track of one another.

The Red Cross’s Safe and Well Web site allows people within a large-scale disaster area to post messages about their well-being or register with the program via telephone. Family members can check the Web site or call to see if there is information about a loved one.

Establishing a plan with friends or neighbors can be important particularly for individuals who may need extra help during an evacuation.

Healthy people who have prepared for their own needs may be better able to check on others who are more vulnerable.

“It’s the networking we all need to a better job with,” Johnsen said.

Emergency networks are also important for pet owners, who are much less likely to evacuate if they have no place to shelter their pets. Most evacuation shelters accept only service animals.

Although Hurricane Katrina prompted the Red Cross, humane societies and other groups to begin developing animal evacuation plans, pet owners should have their own plan in place that includes motels, boarding facilities, shelters and friends who will be able to take in their pet during an emergency.

Owners also might have a “go-kit” for their pet, including carriers, leashes, medications, food and water.

Up to date identification and license tags and vaccinations will help ensure pets are accepted into any sheltering facilities.

— Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit or call 871-7676.

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