During the last few years, our country has seen natural and man-made disasters that have disrupted lives, destroyed property and taken lives. Many in the East are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The West has experienced wildfires, earthquakes and the devastating Oso mudslide in Washington state. Tornadoes swept through the Midwest and South. And last winter brought prolonged, sometimes deadly, cold temperatures to much of the country.
One lesson we all learned during those events: In the wake of disasters, seniors and people with disabilities are especially hard-hit. Elders with mobility challenges, visual impairment or hearing often find themselves trapped at home without electricity or water. Family caregivers anxiously try to reach their loved ones to be sure they are safe.
People with Alzheimer’s disease are especially vulnerable in disaster situations. According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR), impaired memory and reasoning may severely limit these seniors’ ability to cope. For caregivers, it is important to have a disaster plan that incorporates the special needs of loved ones who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia. ADEAR offers these suggestions:
“Riding it out” at home
In some situations, you may decide to stay at home during a natural disaster. Plan ahead to meet your family’s needs and those of your loved one with Alzheimer’s for a period of at least three days to a week. Include supplies and backup options in case you lose basic services.
You also will need special supplies for your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Assemble a kit, and store it in a watertight container. The kit might contain:
- Warm clothing
- Sturdy shoes
- Spare eyeglasses
- Hearing aid batteries
- Incontinence undergarments, wipes and lotions
- Pillow, toy or other comfort object
- Favorite snacks and high-nutrient drinks
- Zip-lock bags to hold medications and documents
- Copies of legal, medical, insurance and Social Security information
- Physician’s name, address and phone number
- Recent photos of your loved one
As part of your disaster planning, hold practice drills, with each member of the household performing specific tasks. Assign somebody to take primary responsibility for the person with Alzheimer’s.
Because the needs of a person with Alzheimer’s will change as the disease progresses, periodically update your plan to reflect these changes. For example, your loved one is likely to become less mobile in the later stages of the disease. How will that affect your plan?
If you must leave home
You may need to move to a safer place, like a community shelter or the home of a family member. Consider how you will get your loved one to go quickly and calmly. Be ready to use tactics that have worked in the past.
During relocation, the person with Alzheimer’s might become anxious and start to behave erratically. Remain as calm and supportive as possible. Your loved one is likely to respond to the tone you set. Be sensitive to his or her emotions. Stay close, offer your hand, or give your loved one a reassuring hug. Do not leave him or her alone.
To plan for an evacuation:
- Know how to get to the nearest emergency shelters. Some areas have shelters for people with special needs. Your local Red Cross chapters can direct you.
- Make sure that the person with Alzheimer’s is wearing an identification bracelet and/or identifying tags sewn into articles of clothing.
- Take along general supplies and your Alzheimer’s emergency kit.
- Bring your cell phone charger and keep the phone charged. Save emergency numbers to your phone.
- Plan to keep neighbors, friends and family informed of your location. Give them your phone numbers and a list of emergency numbers.
- Be sure that other people have copies of your loved one’s medical records. If necessary, they can provide these records to emergency medical staff to ensure that your loved one receives appropriate treatment and care.
- Prepare to prevent wandering. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease wander, especially under stress.
- If possible, plan to take along the household pet to comfort your loved one. (Remember that this might not be possible; FEMA offers preparation information for pet owners; see below for the link.)
If you become separated
You should not leave a person with Alzheimer’s alone, but the unexpected can happen. Avoid asking a stranger to watch your loved one if possible. Also, do not count on the person with Alzheimer’s to stay in one place.
To plan for possible separation:
- Provide local police and emergency services with photos of your loved one and copies of his or her medical documents, so they are aware of your loved one’s needs. Be ready to alert them if you and the person in your care become separated.
- Be sure that your loved one wears an identification bracelet.
- Contact your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter and enroll the person in the Medic Alert + Safe Return program [http://www.alz.org/care/dementia-medic-alert-safe-return.asp], an identification and support service for people with Alzheimer’s disease who may become lost or injured.
- Make plans with trusted people who can help your loved one. Educate them about his or her disabilities.
- Give a trusted neighbor, friend or relative a house key and a list of emergency phone numbers.
For More Information
The Alzheimer’s Association offers a disaster preparedness checklist http://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_disasterprep.pdf with more reminders and safety preparation tips.