Disaster Safety & Assistive Technology: Protection for Seniors & the Disabled

Emergency Preparedness: How It Differs

When disaster strikes, our first instinct is to check in with our loved ones and make sure they’re okay. But if your loved one is a senior or has a disability, you can’t afford to wait to “check in” — timing is everything during an emergency, and you need to buy them as much time as possible to react independently. You should create an emergency preparedness guide to keep them safe and accessible even as a crisis is unfolding.

Old age, limited mobility, and sensory processing issues can all negatively impact one’s ability to respond. We’ve assembled this guide to help establish a centralized collection of resources and assistive technology that you can use for all aspects of disaster safety, from prevention through intervention and evacuation.

The goal here is to make sure your loved one (or their caregivers) have no delays in being alerted to danger, maximum reaction time, and the greatest possibility of successfully evacuating to safety or getting assistance if needed. Every resource listed below helps with this, both in disaster and normal times.

We focus on assistive technology here — starting with automobile resources and then expanding to general safety — but we’ve also incorporated ideas for local resources to consult with, including workshops and first responders. These groups often have recommendations appropriate to your geographic location and climate, state-of-the-art suggestions, advice on discounts, and even training programs to help your senior loved ones know how to use their assistive technology.

How Can We Protect Our Seniors?

The fact that elderly individuals are the most vulnerable to disasters is very well documented. For example, 75% of the bodies found in New Orleans during and right after Hurricane Katrina were aged 60 or older, despite only comprising 15% of the population. Researchers examining this disaster identified both the lack of evacuation facilities as well as handicaps as major contributing factors to mortality.

The good news is that because seniors are a significant, easily identifiable subset of the population, they are a major target for programming, services, and tools. By focusing on making it easier to alert and communicate with seniors, we can help ensure their path to safety. Additionally, we want to help reinforce the kinds of routines that can help them maintain stable health and increase long-term resilience. Review these action items and resources as you plan out how to protect yourself and/or your loved ones.

Don’t wait until the threat of disaster to look into these tools and resources. Even in normal daily life, they all provide value and protection.

  • Maximize the cameras in your vehicle. Being aware of your surroundings becomes that much more critical during a disaster. There are specific camera features built into automobiles that can help you safely maneuver through peril, keeping yourself and those around you safe even with obstructed visibility.
  • Rearview monitors are already required for all new cars by May 2018, but it is worth making sure your monitors work properly, and that you are comfortable using them.
  • 360-degree camera systems help provide a bird’s eye view of your camera in relation to your surroundings. Though helpful for everyone, they are particularly useful for people who have trouble seeing or having trouble moving to see, such as how drivers might need to turn their neck and shoulders quickly. During a disaster, you might be faced with limited range of sight through your windows, and so every bit of help you can get could make a crucial difference.
  • Blind spot monitors can detect other cars near the driver’s side and the rear of the vehicle and issue a warning signal in a medium easily handled by the driver and matching their preferences, whether that be a sound, a light, or even a vibration.
  • Maximize the lighting in and around your vehicle. Again, you need to make sure you see as much as possible – and are also seen by others, which can help keep you safer and also make it easier for you to get help if you are in distress.
    • Adaptive headlights that adjust according to the direction you turn the steering wheel can help you navigate better through inclement conditions.
    • Automatic high beams turn on during lowlight conditions and help give you one less thing to remember. This helps increase your field of vision, while also making your car more visible to others.
    • Use auto-dimming rear and side-view mirrors to reduce glare and enhance visibility without having to think about it.
  • Automate crash detection and first responder access when on the road using telematics systems which combine GPS coordinates with on-board diagnostics to record data points about driving patterns. These systems can detect crashes, making them excellent warning systems that can summon emergency responders even when the driver is injured or unconscious.
  • These days, each car maker has their own affiliation with telematics companies, so consider this as you purchase or equip your vehicle. Other factors to consider are smartphone integration, location and driving alert settings (what can you configure, can the data be accessed remotely/on a smartphone, etc.), and even diagnostics abilities. Be sure to understand telematics before using them, including how they might not have the impact on car insurance that you thought.
  • Check to see if you can have driver drowsiness detection installed in your vehicle. Different systems can use different data points to trigger warnings, including biometrics, lane monitoring, and even steering input. If you are partly injured in any way – and might not realize it – such a system can tell and make sure you are kept safe.
  • Automate emergency braking. Seniors may have reduced reaction time, but this can be compensated for through technology that slows the car down in time to reduce or even impact. Aside from preventing crash mortalities, this also protects seniors from injuries that may be difficult and expensive to recuperate from. You can think about this as the automobile version of reducing ‘fall risk.’
  • Install power steering, maintain your suspension system, and use an automatic transmission. Reduce the physical demands of driving as much as possible to minimize fatigue and maximize reaction time for senior drivers. Make it easier for your senior to steer through a smooth drive, maintaining full control over their vehicle.
  • Consider a steering knob or other simplified steering systems to accommodate any physical limitations. (Be sure to check its legality in your state.) Also, a thick steering wheel can be easier for those with arthritis to grip, particularly if it is heated.
  • Consider the complexity of the dashboard and the size of the gauges. Test drive and make sure that the buttons on the dashboard are comfortable spaced and easy to use, and be wary of too many touchpads – these can be difficult to operate and very distracting.


elderly seniors safely driving in a car while happy

  • Check out the assistive technology built into mobile phones. With options for emergency alerts, large fonts, flashing lights for ring tones, easily referenced contacts, and fully customizable dashboards, you can tailor your smartphone to accommodate your seniors’ needs and comfort with technology. This will ensure that your senior can access the resources they need wherever they are.
  • Use reminders wisely. Setting automatic reminders for maintenance steps can help make sure that your resources are optimized and ready, even in the face of danger.
  • Resort to a simple flip phone if necessary. If smartphones are overwhelming., consider buying a simple emergency flip phone, which often have built-in large fonts and loud tones. This will keep your senior safer wherever they are.
  • Install keyless entry and ignition to prevent delays from misplaced keys.
  • Automate monitoring for deviations from routine at-home. This is helpful for rapid intervention not just in the event of a natural disaster, but even for individual crises. Alarm.com’s Wellness device (formerly BeClose) monitors your loved ones’ activities and allows you to set alerts for deviations in their behavior.
  • Facilitate easy communication between seniors and responders. There are plenty of devices out there that keep emergency responders at one’s fingertip if a phone alone does not suffice, or if you’d like to make it even easier; for a monthly subscription, you can have 24×7 monitoring. You want your senior to be able to access help immediately and easily, even if they are in distress or rendered immobile. Ideally, no landline is required for these services, although that might be an issue if your senior lives in an area with poor cellular coverage. Often these medical alert systems (e.g. MobileHelp) offer fall buttons and waterproof devices, allowing them to be carried everywhere.
  • Make it easier for your seniors to communicate directly with you. Devices exist that convert SMART TVs into easily navigated videophones, often with reminders and other features included; Independa is one example of this. They also allow you to check the weather forecast and set reminders for your loved ones, which can be particularly helpful when preparing for a possible natural disaster.
  • Make sure your senior receives weather, emergency, and local breaking news reports. With special apps for smartphones and smart TVs now available, as well as plug-in devices capable of achieving this as well, you have many options for easily staying up-to-date. Weather alert radios are one particularly useful device as they can be set to a specific region, and can be purchased to generate alerts in a modality that works best for you; for example, generating a flashing light in addition to a sound to accommodate the hard of hearing.
  • Invest in an easy to navigate computer designed for seniors. Features to look for include touch screen, bright displays, text-to-speech, and simple apps/interface. Change is difficult for everyone, and it can be hard to master new devices in old age. Keep your device limited to the essentials if you want it to actually be used! Telikin is one maker of senior-focused computers.
  • Centralize wellness management and communication. Monitor health and activity, manage medication administration, and facilitate communication – with family members, caregivers, and even emergency personnel – using a one-stop platform, such as GrandCare’s software, which works on any device that connects to the internet. One added consideration is that this removes from your senior’s plate the upkeep needed to maintain and access accurate contact listings for responders, health care professionals, and family members.
  • Automate medication administration to prevent emergenciesTabSafe is a device that can help with this; it also has an online reporting feature that can come in handy in the event of an emergency, where a disoriented or injured senior might not recall their last dosage, or – for example, in the event of an evacuation – might not be able to access their pills at home to confirm that they’ve taken all of their medication appropriate.
  • Keep mobility devices handy and charged. It’s not a terrible idea to have a spare cane or walker, or to maintain a back-up source of power for a scooter, just in case. Keep them accessible for your loved one and their caregivers.
  • Check for local workshops. Usually free, one of the best places to start is with locally-organized workshops. These are usually hosted by first responders, and can help provide the most up-to-date expertise specific to both the problems (e.g. hurricanes) and resources (e.g. hurricane response team) found in your area. They may even organize events for particular groups, such as seniors or even kids. Specific institutions to look to for such help include:
  • Local libraries
  • Senior centers
  • Area Agencies on Aging
  • Access centers
  • FEMA or Homeland Security hosted
  • Local organizations for particular age groups or disabilities
  • Check with first responders. These include police and fire departments as well as local branches of the American Red Cross, who may be able to provide you with the right contact information and measures for resources within your community.
  • Review how to register for disaster assistance. Depending on the event that occurs, knowing how to register for this can help provide the necessary resources you need to handle. This is also a great way to make sure that your senior has the appropriate contact info handy and is comfortable making any necessary calls, checking sites, and reading their email.

Additional resources

Here are some great sources for more details to help you or your senior develop safety plans, and become ready should disaster strike:

How Can We Help People with Sensory Disabilities?

Seniors are not the only group whose physical limitations render them vulnerable in the face of disaster. Anyone whose sensory processing is affected in any way – including anyone who is blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard-of-hearing – will be at risk during a disaster, where they may struggle to react fast enough or seek safety. An extreme case can be found in those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), who constantly struggle with the detection of sensory signals and/or appropriately reacting to them.

Fortunately, there is technology available to help accommodate these disabilities in addition to what we’ve already covered above. In this section, we dig a bit deeper into accommodating disruptions in sensory perception.

  • Convert alert signals into modalities that do work. Assess the strengths and deficiencies you are working with. Be sure to consider the stability of the disability; if it is degenerative, consider an adaptation that will retain maximum helpfulness over time even as the condition progresses.
  • Append visual signals – such as turn signals – with sounds for those who struggle to see. Devices exist such as the Turn-Alarm that help produce sounds in sync with your light signals, to help compensate for sight deficiencies. This can also be very helpful to make sure you or your loved one do not accidentally leave your turn signal on. Miscommunication with other drivers can lead to accidents, especially during an emergency state.
  • Mount a siren alert device in your car for those who have trouble hearing. These devices can detect the high-frequency sound waves emitted from emergency vehicles and provide alternative signals for those who are hearing impaired.
  • Use this principle around the house as well. Carbon monoxide alarms, fire and smoke detectors, and even weather alert systems exist that generate signals that work for particular disabilities, e.g. generate strobe lights that flash before the hard of hearing. The sooner your loved one can be alerted to any sort of disaster, the sooner they can take cover.
  • Know the triggers. For your loved ones with sensory processing disorders (SPD), what causes symptoms to flare up? With the chaos that often ensues in the wake of a crisis, it is imperative to be keenly aware of triggers and have some sort of strategy to cope. Combined with therapy, this remains the best thing that can be done by those with SPD to prepare for disasters. After all, during an emergency there is no way to completely cut out triggers like sirens or flashing lights.
    • Does sound trigger? Build a ritual to mute phones, and discuss a coping mechanism in case sudden sounds come on while out and about. Consider using ear plugs; do not totally block out all sound, but instead rely on them to muffle out the extremes and keep clarity of mind around your loved one. Keep spares nearby in case of emergency.
    • Are bright lights an issue? Make sure to familiarize them with auto-dimming features on their mirrors so that glare does not trigger them. Consider tinting the windows (within legal limits). Keep sunglasses – preferably polarized – on hand for particularly difficult days.
    • Is smell a trigger? Consider having a face-mask on hand, or a sample of a tolerable scent (e.g. a bottle of clarifying essential oil) to help drown out any offensive scents and keep your loved one collected. Again, having this on hand in case of emergency will help make it easier for your loved one to balance their sensitivity while also seeking shelter.
  • Make sure your emergency kit includes medicine to deal with acute symptoms of sensory overload. For example, keep migraine medicine or anti-emetics on hand. These can help provide relief and hence clarity during critical moments.
  • Use a bioptic telescope to see better while driving.  These are eyeglasses mounted with miniature telescopes, allowing the driver wearing them to view details in the distance… and have enough time to react with their vehicle. Be sure to check your state’s rules about driving with this visual enhancement.
  • Invest in an assistive listening device (ALD), which enhances the function of hearing aids and cochlear impacts by filtering out the background noise. Particularly during an emergency situation, this could help encourage swift, appropriate response to danger by helping the individual hear and more accurately process what’s going on.
  • Use voice clarifying devices for TV audio to hear alerts. Weather alerts and other critical warnings can be conveyed by local news circuits, and so being able to hear and process television communication is essential. Devices like TV Ears help to amplify/clarify dialog without needing to turn up the volume.
  • Use amplified ringers and phone amplifiers. Whether for land lines or cell phones, use these tools to adjust the volume beyond the normal range and ensure that your loved one who is hard of hearing can hear the phone ring or during a call. Safety alerts and instructions from first responders need to be audible in order to be practical.
  • Use a weather alert radio, which is set to monitor weather for a specific geographic area and provide alerts based on upcoming potential emergencies as well as any existing ones. Features to look for include pillow shakers and strobe lights, to make sure the device’s notifications match what your loved one can sense.
  • Invest in TTY, TDD, or TT – acronyms for the same thing: solutions that exist to accommodate individuals who cannot hear to parse speech. Whether you buy a communications solution or modify an existing one, options exist for every form of phone: landlines, wireless, and even computers. These allow for keyboard input of conversations that can be read out loud. The essential part here is to make sure that there is a way for your loved one to interact with others in case of an emergency.
  • Use video phones to allow for sign language communication. Consider portable solutions to keep this option available even for individuals on the go. When you do get a portable solution, make sure to consider how it will be powered, and if there are any other back-up precautions you need to take in order to ensure that your loved one can actually use it in the event of an emergency.


Disabled boy in wheelchair smiles as he gets on the bus for school

  • Register yourself for emergency assistance. If you have a disability, it’s imperative to register with your local fire, police, and/or emergency department offices so that you can receive the help you need. If you have accommodations that require electricity, register with the utility company (if they have this capability).
  • Assess yourself. The Red Cross recommends outlining what your needs are and how they can be met, both before and after a disaster. Record these, whether in writing or audio.
  • Know your support network. Yes, the goal here is to provide individuals with independence for disaster safety, but it is always a good idea to support this with taking note of whom your emergency contacts are, in terms of family, caregivers, and local resources. Collect their up-do-date contact information. For personal contacts, let them know about each other as well as how to reach each other. Be sure to take note of medicine, disabilities, special needs, and sensitivities, and discuss these with your people. Compile and keep a reference document on you that can be used in case of an emergency.
  • Know your evacuation plan. Depending on the disaster – fire, inclement weather, medical emergency – where should you go? Make sure you know where shelters and hospitals are, and share these with your support network.
  • Look for disability-oriented workshops and training. These are often put on by local organizations dedicated to serving a particular disability, as well as professional organizations led by providers who frequently handle specific disabilities. They often address both the assistive technologies as well as services that are available to affected populations.


Additional resources 

For further information on assistive technology that can help you or your disabled loved one avoid disaster, check out the following resources: