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When Disaster Strikes: Helping People with Alzheimer's Disease

Cars covered with snow.We seem to hear more and more about nature's extremes—hurricanes, tornados, forest fires, floods, blizzards, earthquakes, and more. When they cause severe disruption and threaten many people, they are natural disasters. People with Alzheimer's disease can be especially vulnerable in disaster situations. Their impaired memory and reasoning may severely limit their ability to cope. For caregivers, it is important to have a disaster plan that incorporates the special needs of the person with Alzheimer's.

“Riding It Out” at Home
In some situations, you may decide to stay at home during a natural disaster. Plan ahead to meet your family's needs and those of the person with Alzheimer's for at least 3 days to a week. Include supplies and backup options in case you lose basic services. Refer to information from organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross to make a general disaster plan. (See the “For More Information” section.)

You also will need special supplies for the person with Alzheimer's. Assemble a kit, and store it in a watertight container.  The kit might contain:

    * Warm clothing
    * Sturdy shoes
    * Spare eyeglasses
    * Hearing aid batteries
    * Incontinence undergarments, wipes, and lotions
    * Pillow, toy, or something the person can hold onto
    * Medications
    * Favorite snacks and high-nutrient drinks
    * Zip-lock bags to hold medications and documents
    * Copies of legal, medical, insurance, and social security information
    * Physician's name, address, and phone number
    * Recent photos of the person with Alzheimer's

Also as part of your disaster planning, have practice drills, with each member of the household performing specific tasks. Do not give the person with Alzheimer's responsibility in the plan; and assign somebody to take primary responsibility for him or her.

Questions To Consider

    * What will I need to care for the person with Alzheimer's in different types of disasters?
    * How will I deal with his or her emotions and behaviors?
    * What will I do if we are isolated?
    * What should I do if we must evacuate our home?
    * How do I get to the nearest emergency shelters?
    * What will I do if the shelter is crowded or chaotic?
    * What will I do if we become separated?

Because the needs of a person with Alzheimer's will change as the disease progresses, periodically update your plan to reflect these changes. For example, he or she is likely to become less mobile in the later stages of the disease. How will that affect your plan?

If You Must Leave Home

You may need to move to a safer place, like a community shelter or the home of a family member. Consider how you will get the person with Alzheimer's disease to go quickly and calmly. Be ready to use tactics that have worked in the past.

During relocation, the person with Alzheimer's might become very anxious and start to behave erratically. Remain as calm and supportive as possible. He or she is likely to respond to the tone you set. Be sensitive to his or her emotions. Stay close, offer your hand, or give the person a reassuring hug. Do not leave him or her alone.

To plan for an evacuation:

    * Know how to get to the nearest emergency shelters. Some areas have shelters for people with special needs. Local Red Cross chapters can direct you.
    * If you don't drive or driving is dangerous, arrange for a family member, friend, neighbor, or emergency service to transport you.
    * Make sure that the person with Alzheimer's is wearing an identification bracelet and/or that identifying tags are sewn into articles of clothing.
    * Take both general supplies and your Alzheimer's emergency kit.
    * Bring your cell phone charger and keep the phone charged. Save emergency numbers to your phone, including the Alzheimer's Association Safe Return phone number (1-800-625-3780), if you participate in that program.
    * Plan to keep neighbors, friends, and family informed about your location. Give them your phone numbers and a list of emergency numbers.
    * Be sure that other people have copies of the person's medical records. If necessary, they can provide these records to emergency medical staff to ensure that the person receives appropriate treatment and care.
    * Pack familiar, comforting items for the person.
    * If conditions are noisy or chaotic, prepare to find a quieter place.
    * Prepare to prevent wandering. Many people with Alzheimer's disease wander, especially under stress.
    * If possible, plan to take along the household pet to comfort the person.

If You Are Separated

A fire approaching a residential area.You should not leave a person with Alzheimer's alone, but the unexpected can happen. Avoid asking a stranger to watch the person if possible. Also, do not count on the person with Alzheimer's to stay in one place.

To plan for possible separation:

    * Provide local police and emergency services with photos of the person and copies of his or her medical documents, so that they are aware of the person's needs. Be ready to alert them if you and the person in your care become separated.
    * Be sure that the person with Alzheimer's wears an identification bracelet.
    * Contact your local Alzheimer's Association chapter and enroll the person in the Medic Alert + Safe Return program—an identification and support service for people with Alzheimer's disease who may become lost or injured.
    * Make plans with trusted people who can help the person with Alzheimer's. Educate them about the person's disabilities. Give examples of simple instructions that the person may follow.
    * Give a trusted neighbor, friend, or relative a house key and a list of emergency phone numbers.

Take Care of Yourself

Staying healthy helps you provide the best possible care to the person with Alzheimer's disease. To protect your health during a natural disaster:

    * Ensure proper nutrition and hydration.
    * Rest.
    * Practice good hygiene.
    * Find a doctor and pharmacy.
    * Find a good listener or spiritual support.

For More Information:

The U.S. Administration on Aging Web site provides disaster-planning Resources for Individuals, Families and Caregivers on its Web site, including tips on emergency preparation, planning checklists, and ways to seek assistance after a disaster.

The Alzheimer's Association offers a list of points to consider in disaster planning when caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease.

The American Red Cross Web site provides specific recommendations on the types and amounts of food, water, and supplies you should have on hand in the event of a natural disaster. It also tells you how to find your local Red Cross chapter.

The Department of Homeland Security Web site provides disaster preparedness information for caregivers that covers both human-made and natural disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Web site offers general disaster planning advice tailored to specific types of disaster. It also provides a guide to locating local disaster recovery centers.

Also of interest, see Home Safety for People with Alzheimer's Disease, from the ADEAR Center.


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