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Assessing Options in Disaster Planning for Seniors - Aging Wisely

We have covered many tips about natural disaster planning for seniors and caregivers and offer a hurricane preparedness checklist for elders, but an important consideration in disaster planning for older individuals is to determine risk and alternatives. Disaster planning is designed to minimize risk, to be better prepared to deal with the challenges that disasters bring. While no plan can cover all situations, a well-thought out plan helps anyone to be better able to respond. Early warning systems, communications/media have improved our ability to survive some disasters, but only with proper planning and heeding those warnings appropriately.

During hurricane season, one of the key decisions is whether or not to evacuate as a particular storm is predicted to hit. Some people feel they must stay with their homes, or argue that they’ve “lived here for 50 years and nothing has happened yet so I’m staying”, but this can be especially dangerous logic for elders and those suffering from health issues or disabilities.

An important component of Aging Wisely’s hurricane planning is completing a “physical and environmental assessment” (which we do at the beginning of the season for general planning purposes and update as things change and particular storms approach). The assessment looks at some issues about the home itself, such as having hurricane shutters (and the ability to place them, or someone to help) and adequate supplies. But, more importantly, we look at the client’s status and abilities to assess possible risk during/after a storm. For example, can the person ambulate on his/her own, can he/she self-administer medications, does he/she have good judgment of safety and well-being? For couples living together, it is important to take in to account the challenges a caregiver may face trying to survive the storm and carry out normal caregiving duties. Especially if caring for a loved one with dementia, the care recipient may be unusually anxious, act out and wander.

One of the benefits of such an assessment is to paint a picture of the specific problem areas and concerns instead of having the illogical discussion as mentioned above (I’ve never left before, why should I now?). While we cannot make anyone evacuate, our goal is to provide the information needed to help families make a good decision (whether or not the person ultimately makes a good or bad choice). As part of this, we communicate that our staff cannot be put in harm’s way either and therefore will not be available up to 72 hours prior to a storm’s approach, as they prepare themselves and their families. We also remind clients and families that even emergency services stop during extremely high winds and dangerous weather. If you are trying to convince a loved one to consider alternatives, these ideas might help you too.

Here are some examples of questions to ask when putting together an emergency plan:

• What is the home’s evacuation zone? (Mobile homes must evacuate regardless of location.)
• Has the home been prepared for hurricanes (windows, garage doors secured, trees trimmed, debris and loose items removed, an available safe room in the interior without windows)?
• Does your loved one rely on home health caregivers? What arrangements have they made for emergency care?
• Does your loved one rely on medical equipment that requires electricity?
• Does your loved one have memory impairments/cognitive decline?
• Does your parent have respiratory or heart problems? Conditions that would be exacerbated by extreme heat, stress, poor diet?

Create a plan. Individuals with special needs who may need assistance should register with the county emergency services (see our checklist for contact information in Pinellas, Pasco & Hillsborough counties in Florida) but should not rely on emergency services and shelters as the primary plan. Here are some alternative options:

• Consider evacuating older relatives to stay with out-of-town family or local family and friends who are in safer locations (i.e. your Mom lives in a mobile home park and has good friends who live further inland in a newer home).
• Some Assisted Living Facilities and Skilled Nursing Facilities accept short-term respite stays during storms.
• If your loved one has a home in a relatively safe area that has been fitted with hurricane windows and other wind-mitigation devices, consider stocking emergency supplies and having someone stay in the home with your loved one to assist, especially in the aftermath. (However, be realistic about the person’s needs while dealing with the storm and time after. See our EasyLiving blog post about special precautions for persons with Alzheimer’s Disease/dementia.)

We cannot overstate the need for caution when dealing with an elderly or frail individual. If you are a family caregiver, especially one who lives at a distance and has a senior family member in Tampa Bay, realistic planning is essential. In addition to basic safety, think of the comfort level (and health/hygiene) of your loved one, who may have to manage with no electricity or water and limited support services for weeks.

For additional assistance with hurricane planning for seniors in Florida, contact us. We offer planning services in addition to comprehensive geriatric assessments and care management oversight for out-of-town relatives.

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