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How to Prepare Seniors with Dementia for a Hurricane

This article is based on a conversation by Kim Hegwood, managing attorney for Your Legacy Legal Care, and Dale Libby, Chairman and CEO of the Brazoria County Gathering Place Interfaith Ministries. For the full conversation on this topic, view the Life Happens podcast episode with Kim and Dale here.

As hurricane season approaches every year, many Texans are reminded of the damage done by the hurricanes and tropical storms: Harvey, Ike, Rita, Allison, Alicia, and even Tropical Storm Ida and Hurricane Katrina for our neighbors in Louisiana. Many people affected by these storms and hurricanes wait to plan for it until the situation is too late, and supplies may run out or it may take hours to get where families need to go. While hurricanes can be a stressful time for everyone, it is especially stressful for our seniors and those with dementia.

Loved ones with dementia are very vulnerable to the stress that is created by the hurricane, especially if there is a mandatory evacuation. It is crucial to note that the progression of dementia can be exasperated by this stress. Staying calm and planning ahead are critical to your loved one’s health and yours too. Many people who have dementia may not fully understand what is happening, and if the caregiver is stressed, the loved one with dementia will be stressed.

Making a Plan

The best way to avoid everyone becoming stressed is to make a plan and become knowledgeable. Planning and coaching your family in advance of the evacuation will be less difficult and less harmful for you and your loved one with dementia. If you plan to stay in your home instead of evacuating, make sure to stock up on comfort items; activities and foods that will keep your family member calm and help them deal with the violent weather. Even if you live inland and you have a generator, create a backup plan to ensure your safety.

If you do evacuate, take a photo of your family member with your smart phone camera every morning right after they get dressed. This will help you if your loved one gets lost, as 60% of Alzheimer’s patients wander. Dale Libby says, “My wife wandered off one time I wasn’t even there. She was at a friend’s house and I was an hour away, and my friend calls me and says ‘I can’t find Joyce,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean you can’t find Joyce? You know she’s at the house with you,’ and she had wandered out. My friend had fallen asleep and my wife had gotten up and wandered down the street. We called the cops, they had the dogs out, and luckily my wife wandered back. It is a really good idea to take a picture of your loved one every day because you never know when you might need it.”

Dale goes on to say, “While preparing for evacuation, again, be calm and take the time to be loving and reassuring. Smile, give hugs, and hold hands. Assure your family member that you are all going to be safe and you’re going to have some time to enjoy each other. And make sure that the other family members understand the critical importance of remaining calm and pleasant. The last thing you need in a hurricane evacuation is for your loved one to have a meltdown.”

The most important part about making a plan is implementing the plan. Dale explains, “When you’ve gone through the trouble of making the plan and the time comes, work the plan! How many times does someone make a plan, no matter what it might be, and when something happens, they think ‘Oh my God what are we going to do now?’ What do you mean? You had a plan, so get it out and use it.”

While plans are not always perfect, having a plan will help achieve a better outcome. You need something to start with, and if you have to make a detour down the road that is fine. Dale says, “When we had to evacuate my grandfather when we all left back in the day, I called the caregiver and said, ‘Okay we’re ready to go now. Throw him a weekend’s worth of clothes, put him in the truck and meet me at the house.’ And the caregiver had the bags ready and everything, and she said, ‘But I can’t leave my boyfriend!’ And I said to put him in the truck and take him too. I don’t care! Just get in the truck and meet me at the house, we can’t wait any longer.’ Plans usually have those unexpected bumps, but for the most part you just roll with it. And you know, they spent a great weekend with us. I thank God every day that we ended up in New Braunfels on the river. It was probably the best weekend my grandfather had in a long time. He got to sit by the river in his wheelchair and fish. He spent most of the weekend outside.”

When creating an evacuation plan, you also need to consider where you are going, and where you are taking your loved one with dementia. You need to find those places ahead of time and make sure you can get there.

Make an Emergency Kit

While evacuating a hurricane with your loved one with dementia, it is also crucial to have an emergency kit. Dale recommends getting an airtight container and storing the following items:

  1. Copies of legal papers

  2. Medications

  3. Extra medications

  4. A list of the medications and the dosages

  5. Insurance information

  6. Contact information for physicians and next of kin

  7. A copy of your family member’s diagnosis on the doctor’s letterhead

  8. Extra incontinence products, if needed

  9. Toiletries

  10. Your loved one’s favorite items, whether it is a pillow, stuffed animal, picture album, blanket, etc.

  11. Snacks

  12. Your loved one’s favorite music or movies

  13. Several sets of comfortable and familiar clothing

Dale says, “Some patients wear the same clothes every day. For a while, before my wife had to go to the nursing home, she loved to wear her jeans every day. She also slept in them. When packing clothes, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same outfit repeated, it could even be five sets of the same shirt. When my wife went into the nursing home, I had to get one of those 64-quart containers to fill with clothes and incontinence products, so if the nursing home had to evacuate, every resident had one. They would pack your loved ones’ things in it and put it on a truck and they would be ready to evacuate.”

The Importance of Caring for Caregivers

Many times, caregivers pass away before the person they are caring for, due to a lack of self-care and respite. Caregivers need to remember to take care of themselves and take breaks as often as they can. During an evacuation this can be tough, but if you have other family members with you, they need to step up and help out if they can. In some situations, someone may just need to sit with your loved one and watch movies or listen to music, sitting calmly and preventing your loved one from wandering around while you get some rest. While you take your break from caregiving, do calming activities like yoga or meditation. Exercise is also highly recommended, as it can make all the difference. If your loved one enjoys being active, you can even get them to go on a walk with you.

Kim Hegwood says, “I am very much an advocate of caregivers taking care of themselves. I do caregiver workshops where we talk about all the things they need to know and then I really hammer home that you have got to take care of yourself, you have to ask for help, and you have to get rest. I watched my grandfather almost kill himself from taking care of my grandmother. He had a stroke, he wasn’t eating well, he was sleeping on a concrete floor next to her because she liked the couch. Because of this, I’m very passionate about making sure that caregivers take care of themselves and sometimes it’s just telling them the hard truths.”

Kim goes on, “I had a lady come in, and the first time she came in, I could see she didn’t look that well, and we talked about it, and I gave her some options to consider so we could get her to where she needed to be financially and in better shape so we could do some long-term care planning for her. And next time, she came in looking even worse. And I looked at her and I said, ‘You’re not sleeping well and you’re not taking care of yourself. I’m going to spend 15 minutes with you. How long is the sitter at the house?’ And she said four hours. So I said, ‘Here are your options: you can go home and take a nap for three and a half hours or your daughter is going to drive you around until you fall asleep like a baby.’ And I looked at her daughter and she agreed with me. She really needed to take care of herself but she wanted so badly to take care of her husband at home. We finally got her husband into a very nice facility, and her health improved because now she was sleeping. So she could spend time with him and it wouldn’t be such an exhausting endeavor. I talk to a lot of clients in my elder law practice, and the goal is to not kill each other while taking care of ourselves. We’re supposed to have a good quality of life, and as we age, we need to put those things in place to make sure those kinds of things don’t happen.”

Dale says, “We tell clients that support groups are great. Reach back out to your church family. A lot of them would love to come sit and visit with your loved one for a while just to hang out. You can create a Google Calendar and get lots of people to volunteer. It helps with caregiver costs to have people you know come in and volunteer. Familiar faces are always good; your loved one would much rather see a friend than someone they don’t know.”

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The Gathering Place provides 42 hours of free respite in 10 different churches in Brazoria County each month. They also provide community education, conferences, free memory screenings in November, and first-responder training with the Sheriff’s department in Brazoria County. The Gathering Place offers several programs as a part of their education on Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s prevention, including Brain Camp, Medicamp, and Computalk.

For The Gathering Place’s programs and resources, visit their website at https://gatheringplacebrazoria.org/ or call (979) 308-4525 Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

We meet with many caregivers to discuss long-term care planning for their loved ones. If you need assistance getting your loved one with dementia into a nursing home without breaking the bank, contact us here today.

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