We all learned many lessons during Hurricane Rita, from preparation, to evacuation, to returning home to a life that was far from normal. For those with older adults to care for, it became clear that they had specific needs to address, and meeting these needs could make a significant impact on their overall health and ability to survive.
"As a nurse, I know the physical strain that the hurricane put on many older adults," said Debbie Turner, RN, CLTC, certified long term care planner and owner of Long Term Care Solutions. "Just evacuating in the long lines of traffic for many hours was more than some older adults could endure."
Preparation is key, as we all learned. "Now that we've been through it, we know how to prepare, what to expect and perhaps, how to make things a little more comfortable if we have to endure another hurricane. We all hope that we don't have to go through it any time soon, but if we prepare as if it will happen, we'll be ready," said Turner.
Older adults who rely on family or caregivers for assistance are particularly vulnerable during hurricanes. Because routines are changed, the people they rely upon for basic care may not be around to provide it. Excessive stress can contribute or exacerbate an illness, particularly those with heart disease. Those who are dependent on regular medical treatments, such as dialysis or oxygen should definitely make early preparations. "Even if an evacuation is not called for, roads may become impassable due to heavy rain or high winds and home medical services may not be able to get to your home, or you may not be able to get out to receive the care you usually do," explained Turner. She advises talking with your loved one's physician to know what kind of arrangements to make during an emergency.
Older adults usually take several, if not many, medications daily. Having a system in place for medication management is a good idea. Turner offers this advice for keeping track of medications:
- § Buy a small bag to store all medications. In an emergency, you only have to remember to grab the one bag and go.
- § Write all medications down on one sheet of paper. Include the name of the medication, dosage, and time of day to take it.
- § If your loved one takes more than three medications each day, try using a medication dose manager, available at any drug store or discount store. It has compartments for each day and they are sectioned off into times of the day, such as, Morning, Noon, Afternoon and Evening. By putting the correct dose in the correct time of day, it makes things much easier for your loved one.
- § Keep the original packaging for prescriptions. During Hurricane Rita, many physicians were able to fill prescriptions based on the bottle or box label.
"During an evacuation or even if you ride out a storm at home, the person who usually cares for your loved one may not be available. By having an organized method to medication dispensing, almost anyone could pick up the medication sheet and keep the medications organized in the usual manner. It helps eliminate error," Turner said.
Local phone service may be down for an extended length of time during rough weather. Many older adults rely on a "Life Alert" button worn around their necks. During an emergency, they can push the button and an ambulance is called out. Without phone service, this option is useless. If your older adult lives alone and is in poor health or is a fall risk, it may be best if they stay with family or friends during the time of communication difficulties.
Many families during Hurricane Rita, especially those who became separated during evacuation, found it helpful to use a call chain. One initial call is made to a designated person and they in turn call their designated person and so on. This helps all relatives keep tabs on one another. "Not knowing the location of family members causes stress. It's important to keep the stress level down as much as possible for older adults. By staying in touch with family, it helps everyone involved remain calm," said Turner.
Whether there is a mandatory evacuation, or you decide to evacuate your loved one to avoid the hassle of no electricity and impassable roads, advance planning will make things go more smoothly. "We all remember the traffic tie-ups during last year's evacuation. Consider traveling to a safe area a day or two early. You may even want to make hotel reservations when a hurricane's projected path is close to our area, guaranteeing that you'll have a place to stay should you need to leave," she said. "Be sure to ask the hotel about their cancellation policy. If the storm changes course, you can cancel your reservation."
Consider these suggestions for safe travel arrangements:
- § Plan together with other family members how you will travel with your loved one. Who will be the primary caregiver? If that person is unable to follow through, who is the backup?
- § Frail adults should not be left alone during an evacuation. Plan to alternate with other family members so that there is always a caregiver present.
- § If your loved one is a resident in a nursing home or assisted living facility, ask the director what their evacuation plan is. Chances are, they will rely on families to take their loved ones. The facility is required to have an evacuation plan, but most strongly encourage families to be responsible for their family member, if possible.
- § Some health conditions require constant treatment. If your loved one is in this situation, it is imperative that you are fully aware of the medical care that must be maintained, if your family member must transfer to another facility. The new facility will not be as familiar with the care needed, and you may be the one to inform them of your loved one's special needs.
- § Keep identification, key contact phone numbers, medical diagnosis, living will, and medication list in one location with your loved one. If you should get separated, or need this information in a hurry, it helps to have it in one place. Keep it in a wallet, purse, or medication bag.
- § A public shelter should be considered as the last resort. They are designed to keep people out of the wind and rain, not to provide comfortable accommodations. Even special-needs shelters only provide medical monitoring and assistance in an emergency. They aren't set up to provide medical care, nor do they have medications on hand.
It was evident on television during Hurricane Katrina, and in reality with Hurricane Rita, that we are all vulnerable during a disaster, but especially older adults. That's why it's critical that older people, and those who care for them, prepare for emergencies well in advance.