When Disaster Strikes – What Senior Clients Should Know and How to Tell Them

by Ellen Cheek, Staff Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline

clouds-weather.jpegIn a February 2016 blog post, Attorney Ellie Lanier explained how understanding the brain in conflict can help Hotline staff serve clients; in particular, she cited a neuroscience acronym – SCARF — which summarizes the threats that trigger the fight or flight response in the human brain. Threats to Status (a sense of one’s importance); Certainty (ability to predict the future); Autonomy (the feeling of control over events); Relatedness (discriminating between friend and foe); and Fairness, are all triggers. It is easy to imagine that the aftermath of a storm or other disaster could implicate each and every “SCARF” factor. The senior who loses electrical power or whose home is damaged as the result of a hurricane, fire or flood can certainly feel uncertain and unable to control her circumstances; the inability to get help or to decide who to trust in crisis can threaten both “status” and “relatedness.” The advocate who knows that these are neurological triggers and that a brain in fight or flight mode may not be able to calmly process information or make rational decisions is in a better position to recognize risks a senior disaster survivor may face, and to communicate effectively both before and after a disaster. To the extent that preparation might help a senior cope, the Florida Senior Legal Helpline has created an information sheet for clients which seeks to:

EDUCATE TARGET POPULATIONS – In Florida we recently “weathered” two hurricanes, and we are now sending the attached two-sided mailer entitled “Storm Season Reminders – Be Prepared!” with every closing letter regardless of legal problem code. The flyer includes suggestions for disaster preparation and response from a legal point of view; while other resources may stress supplies of batteries and water, our mailer advises seniors to gather the documents they will need to prove entitlement to disaster relief, make insurance claims, and qualify for benefits. It contains tips for documenting damages and provides phone numbers to address immediate needs (replacement food stamps/EBT benefits, FEMA assistance, etc.) The tone is straightforward and informative and contains explicit directions (e.g., “KEEP all receipts for cleanup and restoration expenses”).

HIGHLIGHT RISKS – Because the senior survivor may well be operating with a “brain in conflict,” the aftermath of a disaster can be fraught with potential pitfalls. The mailer calls attention to some of the most common, if not the most obvious to a preoccupied senior survivor. There are admonitions to verify that housing inspectors, insurance adjusters and contractors are licensed and instructions how to do so. There are warnings about imposter FEMA representatives. Common legal issues are highlighted with contact information for the Senior Legal Helpline in case further advice is needed.

The attached mailer is provided to you in Word format so you can modify to include your state-specific information. The content is more useful before a major disaster declaration; you may want to prepare a different mailer to address post-disaster issues. Awareness of the impact of a disaster upon a senior’s logical capacity will inform the choice of material included and the tone that will be most helpful to maximize effective communication with senior survivors.

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