Disaster Planning and Dementia

Only a couple of decades ago, the concepts of “emergency preparedness” and “disaster planning” were rarely discussed in public.  Of course, all of us have experienced the required drills at school or work (practicing evacuations for fire, extreme weather, or earthquakes, depending on one’s area of the country).  However, for those of us not directly engaged in formal community safety planning, the idea that diligent preparedness can potentially save lives and greatly reduce other damaging effects in a catastrophic event is relatively new. 

Even more recent is the increased attention to the needs of older persons before, during and following a catastrophic event—particularly those with a disability such as dementia.  To begin with, older persons with chronic conditions often have diminished ability to perform normal activities of daily living.  During times of disaster, these same individuals are statistically more likely to be at higher risk for injury, illness and emotional distress—and those who have dementia are at even greater risk.  For this reason, emergency preparedness for the person with dementia may require more detailed planning to ensure safety.

The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence has prepared a superb [free] downloadable publication entitled, “The Calm Before the Storm:  Family Conversations about Disaster Planning, Caregiving, Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.”   This book covers virtually every imaginable contingency for effectively and confidently helping a loved one with dementia through a major event. 

When disaster and dementia meet, it isn’t enough to have  preassembled emergency kit, a checklist of things to do prior to the emergency evacuation, and legal/medical papers, medications and ID in place. While these things are critical (and are covered in the book), the care recipient has many additional needs.  Have you completed an information sheet regarding your family member, should it be necessary for a substitute caregiver to step in unannounced? Have you introduced that person to your loved one and allowed sufficient time for some familiarity to develop? Have you researched where you would take your loved one, if evacuation were necessary?  Doing the most comprehensive preparation possible will help you to remain calm during difficult times, and your calm demeanor will be better for both you and your loved one.

Many other resources exist for emergency preparedness, including READY.gov.   This excellent website covers preparations that are specific to the various types of disasters, whether natural or manmade; provides considerations with regard to a loved one with disability; and discusses the use of social media and other alert systems when mass notification is necessary.    

The Alzheimer’s Association is another great source for information when preparing for an emergency. In particular, its medical alert jewelry is designed to assist in reuniting a lost loved one with the caregiver if a separation occurs.

It is unrealistic to think that we have any control over any major, potentially disastrous event that might threaten the wellbeing of our loved ones or life as we know it.  However, with the investment of some time, careful thought, conversation and planning, we can—to some extent—control our response to catastrophic events, possibly even preventing the less favorable outcomes of injury, increased confusion, anxiety and trauma to our loved ones.

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