Bushfires and older people

The extract below is an adapted article by Dr Sue Ferguson published in the Australian War Widows NSW Digest. Although the immediate bushfire threat has passed, a lot of people have also been impacted by heavy storms and this advice is always useful.

21 April 2020

Many of us are feeling distressed and helpless about the recent bushfires, even if we are not directly affected. This is a normal reaction to the widespread threat to lives and homes, and the news of lives lost, scenes of destruction and injured and dead wildlife and stock. So what are the potential issues for older people in these situations, and how do we stay safe, help others, and manage our own distress?

If you live in a potential bushfire area, check your insurance and make sure you aren’t underinsured. Make sure you have a bushfire survival plan and have discussed it with your family. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help preparing your home and yard for potential fires if you aren’t physically able to do it yourself.

If you don’t drive, talk to family and neighbours about whether they can help evacuate you. Keep up to date with warnings via websites and apps such as the NSW Rural Fire Service ‘Fires near me’, or by listening to the ABC. Keep your mobile phone charged and with you.

If you are a carer for someone with dementia there is a new guide available to help. If your (or your relatives’) homecare services have been disrupted, or your retirement community or nursing home evacuated, the OPAN (Older Persons Advocacy Network) can help you liaise to get continued support.

If you are talking to someone who lives in a fire-affected area, has been evacuated, or lost their home or loved one:

  • Listen, support and reassure them as best you can.
  • Put them in touch with services such as Centrelink and the Disaster Welfare Assistance Line on 1800 018 444.
  • If you’re worried that they (or you) may be having a more severe stress reaction, encourage them to talk to their GP, or to ring helplines such as: Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
  • Ask how you can help.
  • Look after yourself too!

Dr Sue Ferguson is a regular columnist for Council on the Ageing NSW. She is an Honorary Associate Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Macquarie University and has expertise in health psychology and positive ageing.