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Helping Seniors Prepare for and Cope With Natural Disasters

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Seniors are known to have enduring spirits. Many have an amazing ability to handle hardships, most likely because they have already weathered so many storms in their life. Despite this resiliency, dealing with natural disasters can pose unique challenges for those in the older population who are frail and may struggle with chronic illnesses such as memory loss.

Recent natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast and wildfires on the West Coast, illustrate that these kinds of unexpected situations can happen any time, anywhere. For all seniors, it is critical to prepare them in advance, as well as provide support after the fact. Here are some tips to keep seniors as safe as possible during any natural disasters or extreme weather:

Be prepared

Check in with your loved ones and those around them. Ensure that they have all the supplies and materials needed prior to a storm, as well as a plan for safety if a wildfire, earthquake or other disaster should occur. At Sunrise, our communities make sure that we are as prepared as possible, which you can do as well. For example:

• Ensure your loved one always has three days' worth of food and supplies on hand.

• Stock up on additional medications and have a plan for refills.

• Provide and set up generators that will kick in if a short-term power outage occurs; ensure that you regularly test this equipment.

• Prepare your loved one for both sheltering in-place in their home, or the chance they may need to evacuate. This could mean going to a basement that has supplies, visiting a neighbor's home or apartment for the evening, or having you or another loved one pick them up. Be sensitive to your loved one's wishes but also be realistic about their mobility limitations and ability to care for themselves during an emergency.

• Ensure that your loved one has a battery-operated radio or emergency cell phone and knows how to use them.

Accept help

Many seniors have lived through some of our nation's most trying times and therefore are very independent. Although they may not want or believe they need help, it can often fall on the shoulders of the caregiver to ensure their safety. During the recent Superstorm Sandy, I was particularly moved by a story I heard about an elderly man who decided to stay at home with his wife who had Alzheimer's disease, because she did not want to leave her home. He felt it would be better if he kept her at home where everything was more familiar. In hindsight, he regretted his decision, realizing that he really needed much more support than he imagined he would. Your local Area Agency on Aging is a great resource, and don't be afraid to rely on friends, neighbors and family. In addition, many senior care communities offer short-term stays for individuals who may need a secure place during or after a natural disaster.

Offer a Supportive Shoulder

When one's home is damaged, it is a devastating experience for an individual of any age. For those with memory loss, a tragedy like this can also be very confusing and disorienting. Here are some tips on how you can best support them during this time:

• Take a few deep breaths, especially when feeling overwhelmed, which will help you to feel more calm and centered.

• Be open with your loved one about what has occurred, but do not give them more details than they can handle.

• Try to make their new environment as familiar as possible, which means placing belongings where they are most accustomed to finding them, e.g., their eyeglasses, beverages, snacks, and comforting items, such as their favorite sweater or afghan.

• Pets can also be a great source of comfort. Bring your pet or a neighbor's pet to visit with them.

• Use an empathetic approach, rephrasing what they have said so they know you have heard them, and ask open questions to encourage them to verbalize their feelings. You'll want to enter their emotional world and validate their feelings of loss and frustration caused by the changes.

• If your loved one is very forgetful and repeatedly asks questions but can still read, you may have to write down what happened and how you are making the best of the situation and occasionally reference what you have written, or place it in a spot they can see it.

• Be sure to get support for yourself -- it is important to for caregivers to have support and assistance, as well.

Be proactive

Many natural disasters strike with little warning, and sometimes they occur unexpectedly. Take time to do an honest assessment of your loved one's current living situation. If the senior in your life needs help with shopping, preparing meals and doing minor maintenance around their home, he or she might want to begin to explore supportive services or living arrangements, such as assisted living.

Preparing yourself and your loved one can help ensure not only everyone's safety, but also peace of mind with whatever Mother Nature brings.

For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.

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