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:
"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:
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.
Debbie Turner, RN, CLTC, specializes in helping families navigate through the maze of long term care options. She is the owner of Long Term Care Solutions. For more information, call 480-9453.