Hurricane Caregiving: What's Best For Frail, Elderly?

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His mother slept as Irene unleashed her first round of local fury Friday evening, knocking out the electricity. Martini kept his transistor radio on and watched his cell phone for text messages from his county's emergency management alert system. The phone kept him connected to an AgingCare.com member from Florida and another from Washington State, who called "every hour making sure I'm OK. Especially when I was in indecision mode, they were giving me real strong support, keeping me updated on news I couldn't get."

On Saturday, he let his mother stay in bed. "I usually get her up, but she was comfortable in bed," he said. "I think she felt safe."

Red Cross Says Some Frail People Fare Better in Shelters

The American Red Cross, which puts safety first, says some frail patients fare better in shelters, which evaluate their medical needs and have nurses and emergency medical technicians available to address urgent issues.

However, going to a shelter "is always going to be the last thing you want to do," said Jim Judge, executive director of Lake-Sumter EMS Inc., in Mount Dora, Fla. "If you're in a good, solid home ...you're going to be far better off...as long as you're not in a flood-prone area."

Judge, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, advises families worried about an elderly parent or grandparent to ask local emergency management offices if they have plans to shelter "the elderly, the frail, individuals that might have medical conditions such as oxygen dependence." Aides or caregivers can accompany them during shelter stays, he said.

Caregivers and families should make sure to ready emergency kits well in advance of disasters. These can be assembled in a duffle bag, backpack or suitcase -- preferably on wheels, which are easier to maneuver -- and stored under the bed, so they can be rolled out for use at home, or taken to a shelter during an evacuation.

Although disaster preparation focuses on food, water and medications, "the biggest problem we run into is oxygen for oxygen-dependent patients," Judge said. Because power failures cut off the flow of life-saving oxygen through electric-powered devices, patients may want to consider portable machines that can be plugged into a car's DC adapter and run off the car battery, he said.

Caregivers can be instrumental in diverting frail patients' attention from the disaster, Judge said. Play music on a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio. Laugh, talk, joke. "Anything that will keep the individual's mind off what is happening."

AgingCare.com offers tips on emergency planning for frail elders. The Alzheimer's Association has prepared a disaster tipsheet with special considerations for Alzheimer's patients. The American Red Cross has a Disaster Preparedness for Seniors booklet, and has established a "Safe and Well" website to help friends and relatives stay connected during a hurricane or other natural disaster.

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