Some of the most dramatic footage of the fury Hurricane Florence unleashed in North Carolina is a video of an elderly woman being airlifted from her flooded home. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer from New Jersey, lowered from a helicopter into the turbulent waters surrounding the house, soon encounters the woman on the front porch. She looks pale and weak.
It turns out the woman had run out of food and medication. “She hasn’t held any food down for at least three days, or water,” Petty Officer 1st Class Steve Maccaferi relays to his crew members, who had flown from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City.
The video then shows the helicopter lowering a rescue cage and Maccaferi securing the woman inside. She looks scared. But within minutes, she’s receiving the medical attention she needs.
The harrowing incident is a reminder that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to severe weather and natural disasters -- and thus require extra support from family, friends and neighbors. Researchers at Brown University’s School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., are using a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of hurricanes on the elderly.
“If there is one thing we have found repeatedly in our research, it is the simple fact that older adults and hurricanes do not mix,” said researchers David Dosa and Kaly Thomas. “Natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence have a profound destabilizing effect on older adults, who have multiple medical problems including functional and cognitive limitations. They often also have medication and nutritional needs that suffer in the days following a storm.”
I experienced this firsthand during Superstorm Sandy, which devastated much of the Jersey Shore six years ago. Although I lived only a few miles from my mother’s condominium in Highlands, I was unable to reach her or even talk to her for nearly a week. Then in her late 70s, my mother was beginning to show signs of memory loss and other cognitive impairment.
Fortunately, she lived in a building where the residents all chipped in to cook meals on outdoor grills, share flashlight batteries and look after one another. When I finally reached her by cell phone, I learned that she had fared as well as could be expected.
Sandy left an indelible mark on the Jersey Shore, and serves as a constant reminder that families need to take special precautions to ensure the safety of older loved-ones during hurricanes, blizzards and other severe weather events. The Brown University researchers emphasize the importance of having a plan in place before a storm knocks out power and telephone service.
“If you are a family member living outside of the area, make sure you inquire as to what your loved-one’s plans will be in case cellular phone communication is not possible in the days after the storm,” they say in a Q&A posted on the university’s website.
The N.J. Office of Emergency Management offers a “Hurricane Survival Guide” that is loaded with useful information – including tips for people with functional limitations. First and foremost, families need to agree on a communications plan ahead of time. A crucial element of the plan should be to designate a family member or friend who lives outside of the area to serve as a central point of contact. He or she may be able to relay messages and offer reassurances to loved-ones in the storm zone.
The “Hurricane Survival Guide” emphasizes the importance of writing the plan down and making copies for the entire family. It also provides a check-list of essential supplies you may need – whether you’re stuck at home or are forced to evacuate. Hurricane kits for the elderly may require additional supplies, such as medications, reading glasses and blood-pressure monitors.
“If you or someone close to you has a disability or other access or functional need, you may have to take additional steps to protect yourself and your family,” the Office of Emergency Management advises.
Among other things, the OEM recommends registering with local emergency services such as police, first aid squads and fire departments. Churches and nonprofit groups also can provide assistance during emergencies.
So far, the 2018 hurricane season has been quiet at the Jersey Shore. But don’t wait until it’s too late to help an elderly family member survive a storm.
Written by T.J. Foderaro
The challenge of caring for an elderly parent, especially one with Alzheimer’s disease or other form of dementia, can have a damaging ripple effect on the rest of the family. Inevitably, the burden of daily phone calls, food shopping, doctor’s visits and financial support falls more heavily on some family members than others – typically, those who live closest to the parent. And typically women, studies show.
This can generate serious tension and resentment among siblings that can simmer for months -- or even years -- before exploding in potentially destructive ways.
“Of all the difficulties family caregivers face, one of the biggest sources of stress is trying to get on the same page with our siblings,” writes elder-care expert Jody Gastfiend in an Aug. 29 column on Forbes magazine’s website. “While many siblings experience increased closeness caring for their parents, others grow apart.”
Gastfriend cites a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s association that found six out of 10 family caregivers feel they don’t get enough support from their siblings when caring for an elderly parent.
Gastfriend’s column – titled “When Siblings Share the Caregiving for an Aging Parent, Will It Be Welfare or Warfare?” -- is a must-read for anyone in this situation. Gastfriend is uniquely qualified to offer advice, having spent years caring for her own parents. She now serves as vice president of senior-care services at Care.com, the leading online marketplace for home-care services.
Gastfriend also is the author of an excellent new book titled “My Parent’s Keeper: The Guilt, Grief, Guesswork and Unexpected Gifts of Caregiving” (Yale University Press). In an earlier blog post, I highlighted a chapter of the book that addresses the thorny issue of how to care for aging parents who don’t want help.
In her Forbes column, Gastfriend relates the true story of two sisters who suddenly were faced with the challenge of caring for an 89-year-old father who developed Parkinson’s disease. One sister, Kelly, took the initiative to hire a caregiver to help her father with meals, light housekeeping, errands and other essential tasks. But the other sister, Fran, became furious when she learned about the arrangement. Fran felt strongly that her father should be transferred to an assisted-living facility.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” Kelly told Gastfriend. “After all, my sister and I both love my father. Why can’t we agree on things?”
According to Gastfriend, a common source of conflict among siblings is differing perceptions of a.) how serious a parent’s condition is, and b.) the best way to help. If family members can’t reach a consensus, Gastriend recommends seeking professional guidance from an eldercare manager, also known as an aging life care manager. You can find one through the Aging Life Care Association, which maintains a database searchable by zip code.
Another source of conflict is money. Gastfriend cites a recent AARP report that says family members together spend an average of $7,000 per year caring for an elderly parent.
“When siblings fight over money, they can lose sight of what is in the best interest of their parents. If disagreements become entrenched, it may be worth reaching out for expert help.”
Among those most qualified to offer advice in this area are elder-care attorneys and financial planners.
Sibling conflicts can be avoided, or at least mitigated, by holding a family meeting – a topic I addressed in an earlier blog post. The Family Caregiver Alliance offers a comprehensive how-to guide on planning and conducting a family meeting.
It’s essential that family members begin communicating early and often, because the stress level will only increase when it comes time to discuss end-of-life care.
As Gastfriend observes, “all the forces that pull us apart and hold us together can come roaring to the surface as families face difficult decisions regarding end-of-life care. … Planning ahead can avoid the risk of intractable conflicts that may linger for years –- even generations -- after the death of a parent.”
Of course discussing a parent’s impending death is perhaps the most difficult –- and stressful -– conversation siblings will ever face. If you feel you need help in this area, a good resource is The Conversation Project, a website that offers a free “starter kit” to guide siblings in their discussions.
Written by T.J. Foderaro