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Helping older adults recover after a disaster or emergency: Care instructions

Helping older adults recover after a disaster or emergency

Care instructions

After a disaster or emergency, it’s important to support older adults. Make time to offer practical and emotional help and be mindful of special needs that older adults might have. A combination of health and family issues, money problems, and increased stress may lower their ability to cope.

Remember that not all older adults need help. Older adults are not all the same and will have different reactions to the disaster or emergency.

Older adults can be very supportive after a disaster or emergency. Most have the knowledge and life experience to help others cope. Let older adults know how they can participate in relief efforts and welcome them. Focus on their strengths and abilities. They can be great volunteers and volunteering is a good way for older adults to feel more connected to communities and to make new friends.

Special considerations for older adults

Some older adults have past life experiences that can help them to cope with hard times and stress after a disaster or emergency. For others, the disaster may bring back memories that can make it harder to cope.

Older adults may be less likely to recognize or talk about their feelings. Instead, you might see emotional reactions to a disaster or emergency showing up as physical aches and pains.

Changes in daily routines caused by disasters or emergencies may cause increased stress, coping issues, confusion, unhappiness, and anxiety, especially for older adults who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Some older adults may need extra help, like those who:

  • have memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • are living with a mental illness like schizophrenia, anxiety, or depression
  • need regular medicine or health treatments to manage chronic conditions
  • are in poor physical health, have reduced mobility, have problems with vision or hearing, or need help with everyday tasks
  • don’t have close family caregivers, friends, community connections, or a support network
  • can’t speak or read English

Common signs of stress

Everyone responds differently after a disaster or emergency. The signs of stress listed below are common after a disaster or emergency. Usually, these reactions get better over time.

Support is available. Talk with your healthcare provider or call Health Link at 811 if you’re caring for an older adult and are worried about any changes or signs of stress that you see.

Physical changes and changes to behaviour

  • headaches, aches, and pains
  • changes in eating habits, stomach problems, or appetite changes
  • paying less attention to personal hygiene, grooming, and self-care
  • incontinence (loss of control of the bladder)
  • changes in sleep, including difficulty sleeping
  • feeling sick more often
  • weight gain or weight loss
  • increased use or misuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Changes to thinking (cognitive changes)

  • trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • disoriented, confused, wandering, or calling out
  • trouble with short-term memory
  • unusual decision-making behaviours or patterns

Emotional changes

  • moodiness or crying easily
  • feeling depressed, sad, hopeless, or helpless
  • constantly thinking about the disaster or emergency or having flashbacks to the event
  • feeling tired or having a lack of energy or motivation
  • feeling worried, irritable, frustrated, or angry
  • being unusually happy or overactive
  • staying away from people or things that they normally like
  • feeling guilt, disappointment, or shame
  • thoughts of harming themselves or harming others

How you can help

  • Take the time to actively listen. Provide comfort and a safe environment.
  • Allow time for grief and healing. When the older adult is ready, encourage them to speak openly about their thoughts, feelings, fears, or worries.
  • Support older adults to make their own decisions about rebuilding or relocating. Help develop a plan that is appropriate under the circumstances.
  • Help older adults stay connected. Being with family and friends can help older adults regain a sense of hope and optimism about the future.
  • Try to limit disruptions and get back to routines (including regular social and physical activities) as quickly as possible.
  • Talk about concerns or changes to their physical health. These changes may be linked to the older adult’s emotional wellbeing and ability to cope. If you notice changes in an older adult’s memory, behaviour, or usual routines, talk with a healthcare provider or call Health Link at 811.
  • Older adults who are feeling disoriented, confused, or have lost a sense of hope, purpose, or the willingness to move forward should be checked for depression or risk of suicide.

Important numbers and resources

If you or an older adult are having suicidal thoughts, go to the nearest emergency department or call 911 right away.

Call Health Link at 811 to speak to a registered nurse.

Help is available. Most of the phone numbers below offer telephone support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The hours for text messaging support or online chats may be different.

Adapted from Mental Health Promotion & Illness Prevention Team, Alberta Health Services.

To see this information online and learn more, visit


For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.

Current as of: July 21, 2022

Author: Emergency/Disaster Management, Alberta Health Services

This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.