Update 5/14/13: Just found a very relevant article on Consumer Reports: How can I get prescription drugs during an emergency?

We recently had the opportunity to do a research study with survivors of large-scale flooding who were themselves above the age of 65 or else were children that provided care for elderly parents whose homes had flooded.  While we learned a lot from their individual stories, on aggregate, this group painted a clearer picture about how seniors may be able to (or not be able to) use the web to get help and find resources from Federal, State and Local Governments before and after disasters.

Web may not be first choice, but will be used

Some of the seniors and children of the elderly suggested that while many seniors may not have an initial inclination to go to the web, preferring print material or to make a phone call to obtain information, they may end up doing so in the end. The most often heard reason was that after a major disaster, disaster help phone lines can get tied up, and so the web becomes the only option to get and find help in a timely manner.

Another big advantage of putting information on the web specifically for seniors is to reinforce what they may have heard in person.  One senior told of how she and her husband went together and found out everything they needed to do after the disaster at an in-person recovery center.  However, they said that as soon as they walked out the door, they looked at each other and realized that they were in such a state of shock that they couldn’t remember most of what they had been told.  This survivor said she wished she could have been directed to web content upon leaving the meeting to reinforce everything she had just been told.

Senior-specific issues

Seniors want senior-specific information in large print.  While seniors expressed a desire to see more web content posted in larger print (or at least easily scaled to a larger font, perhaps with a size selector), there were frequent requests to see at least senior-specific pages of content posted with a font that would likely be larger than the font for the rest of the website.  We found that Red Cross did a good job at creating this Senior-specific disaster guide (PDF) in a 13 point font.

Seniors may not expect anything for them. In contrast to the likely expectations of younger survivors, most seniors said that they would not expect there is any content geared for them, so they do not go looking for it.  If agencies and organizations post disaster information for seniors, it is critical that they promote this information, or else it may never be seen by those who need it most.

The “scent of information” must be strong.  As research (on usability.gov) has shown, seniors do not do well with deep hierarchies or a lot of clicking.    Almost all the seniors that participated in our study could not find information if it was not placed very obviously in main navigation or else was readily visible from the site home page.  In most cases, they were also observed only viewing information located above the fold that required no additional clicking or scrolling to find. Some seniors had a fear of clicking too much and “messing things up,” as in getting lost in the site.

Seniors rely on graphics for meaning. We found that many seniors would look at one graphic on a page and decide what the page was intended for without doing any reading.  In one case where stock preparedness images showed children, many mistakenly believed the page content was mainly geared towards schools and children.

Seniors get overwhelmed more easily.  It seemed to take less to overwhelm a senior disaster survivor on the web than others.  Too much content on a page, lengthy paragraphs, and text that was hard to easily skim was overwhelming and a turnoff for seniors.

Seniors need phone numbers.  Senior survivors wanted ready access to a phone number to call if they could not find necessary disaster-related information.

If only I had been told…

Participants in our study provided a number of things that they wish they had been told in advance of the disaster.  Some of the items we heard several times include:

  • A bright light/lantern when the power goes out, not just a small flashlight (as seniors may not have good night vision)
  • Extra clothing and blankets available when they get cold
  • Labeling of personal assistive equipment (such as walkers) that could be useful in a shelter
  • A preparedness kit that is on wheels and could be moved easily should a disaster strike
  • A list of doctors and their phone numbers
  • A list of medications and backup pharmacy information (in case the power goes out at a local pharmacy)
  • A guide for caregivers on preparing an elderly parent’s home when helping them to evacuate

Keep seniors in mind for disaster content as well as other content.

While some of the recommendations detailed above are specific to disaster situations, other recommendations can be used to improve information for seniors in a variety of contexts.  It is our hope that governments and organizations can therefore use the above findings to improve web resources for seniors: those who are preparing for disasters, those who have survived disasters, and even those who are looking at senior-related content that does not necessarily even relate to disaster situations.