As recent events in Texas and throughout the Southeast U.S. have shown, natural disasters wreak havoc on even the most prepared cities and communities. These disasters can be difficult to predict, and people who care for the most vulnerable among us must have plans in place to ensure seniors’ physical and emotional health needs are met when the unexpected happens.
Family caregivers of older adults need to prepare a thorough plan to meet the seniors’ needs when disaster strikes and normal care conditions are impossible.
1. Have a thorough, specialized emergency plan.
The first step is to have a plan that accounts for the individual needs of your elderly loved one. It’s important for an emergency management plan to take all unique factors into account, whether it’s the senior’s disabilities to stocking up on medications needed for their survival.
Besides basic emergency supply kits, seniors need a personalized emergency plan detailing where to go when a disaster strikes, how to get there, what is needed (such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, extra oxygen, etc.) and who should be called for assistance.
2. Help elderly loved ones feel safe.
“Try not to watch the news incessantly or in front of the person you're caring for -- it can make anyone who already feels vulnerable (including children) nervous and anxious,” advises Carol O’Dell, author of “Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Heartbreaking and Humorous Memoir.”
She recommends aiming for a tone that’s “calm but authoritative” to help your loved ones feel safe while letting them know the plan of action.
"Quietly gather supplies, and don't wait too long. It's best to give yourself plenty of time and not rush. Know where you're going -- shelter, hotel, other family member's house -- and let others know your A, B, and C plans,” says O’Dell.
3. Get other family members involved.
Ideally, several family members should be available to act on an emergency plan for their elderly loved one.
It’s important to involve the entire family to ensure a challenging task doesn’t fall to only one person. All parties involved in caring for a loved one during an emergency need to know the plan and be aware of the contingencies in the event of changing conditions in health or in the natural disaster.
Remember to keep your senior loved one involved in the decision-making process. Keeping them informed and confident in their care helps ensure that both their emotional and physical needs are met.
4. Have extra medication on hand.
Medications are critical, especially if your loved one’s life depends on them. When natural disasters strike, it can be difficult to access pharmacies. Getting prescriptions filled ahead of time is a small step that can be critical for survival. There may be an extra charge, but it’s well worth the money.
“Keep medications in grab-and-go containers for quick evacuation,” O’Dell advises. “If your loved ones have certain conditions and you fear you may be separated, write on their arm or leg with a marker pen, noting when they need to take their medications, what condition they have, and any other important details.” You’ll also want to make sure you have a copy of your loved one’s medical insurance information, since those documents may be irretrievable after a natural disaster strikes, says O’Dell
5. Create a support network.
If they haven’t already, your elderly loved ones should create a personal support network comprised of several individuals who know where they are and will check in on them when a disaster hits, ensure they’re well and provide assistance if needed. This network can include family members, neighbors, roommates, co-workers, professional caregivers, etc.
It’s essential to exchange important keys, share copies of imperative documents, evacuation plans and health information to guarantee they’re informed in case of an emergency. “This is especially important if you’re a long-distance caregiver or you work full-time,” says O’Dell.
Plan well enough in advance and agree on methods for contacting one another in case electricity is compromised and telephones are not operational. Always have a backup communications plan.
6. Have backup plans in place.
In the event of a natural disaster, even the best plans can run into unforeseen challenges. Severe weather or other unexpected disasters may prevent family members from arriving on time to care for their loved one.
If the pre-established plan isn’t possible, it’s important to know if there are personal-care homes outside the disaster area that can accommodate your loved one on short notice. If your loved one already receives help from an in home care agency, the agency should have staff available who know his or her needs and can accompany them to these temporary care environments if no family members are available.
Even with today’s advanced weather-prediction techniques, disaster can strike when we least expect it or cause more severe problems than anticipated. Preparedness is our best asset for managing emergency situations, making sure seniors and their caregivers are involved in the emergency plan is critical to keeping them safe and making sure their needs are met throughout a disaster.
Sharon Roth Maguire is the Chief Clinical Quality Officer at BrightStar Care. She is a frequent speaker on a variety of topics relevant to senior care including dementia, falls, therapeutic environments, person-centered care, and healthcare informatics. Roth Maguire is also dedicated to training the next generation of healthcare providers, most recently as clinical assistant professor at Marquette University.