It was August 2008, and volunteer Dana Territo was trying to soothe one of hundreds of people sheltering in the LSU Pete Maravich Assembly Center in the wake of Hurricane Gustav — a woman with Alzheimer’s.
The woman, lying on a cot, was distressed by the busy scene around her, and didn’t comprehend it when another volunteer brought her a tray of food, Territo said. “She had no idea” what was happening.
Territo, director of services for Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, said the experience showed a “whole different aspect” to evacuation issues for those with Alzheimer’s.
The upshot? Alzheimer’s Services, under the direction of executive director Barbara Auten, and LSU students partnered to create a practical guide for families caring for a loved one with dementia while facing emergency situations.
“Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care: An Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Manual” was prepared by Alzheimer’s Services and LSU’s Disaster Science and Management Program, specifically its fall class of 2009.
Family members who live with a loved one with Alzheimer’s will be making the important decisions in the case of such events as hurricanes: whether to shelter in place or evacuate.
But even those with a family member living in a residential facility still need to be “proactive and find out what the (evacuation) plans are,” Territo said.
Many residential facilities have agreements with other facilities located out of harms’ way to house their residents in case of a disaster, but other facilities don’t, and family members need to be prepared, she said.
Whatever the situation, advance plans are helpful, she said.
“Keep in mind that the person with Alzheimer’s can read you like a book,” Territo said.
“We have to stay calm as caregivers, because they’ll note that tension,” she said.
It’s important to remember that people with dementia are “especially vulnerable to chaos and emotional trauma,” Territo said.
“They have a limited ability to understand what is happening, and they may forget what they have been told about the disaster,” she said.
Changes in routine, during an evacuation, can cause “agitation, wandering and an increase in behavioral symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions and sleep disturbance,” Territo said.
Caregivers can help by reassuring the person and redirecting the person’s attention, if they become upset.
“Carry a photo album; get one for your purse or car,” Territo said. “They know these faces; they trust these faces. It will redirect them from what they’re feeling.”
But also recognize those feelings, she said.
“They are very frightened —validate that. ‘I know you’re sad … but we’re going to be fine,’” is one way to have a conversation, she said.
In addition to guidance on sheltering or evacuating a person with dementia, the “Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care: An Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Manual” includes contact information for local, state and federal agencies, as well as health and nonprofit organizations.
There’s also information on physical transport methods, emergency shelters and pharmacies on or near evacuation routes.
The manual was funded by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s Commercial Properties Realty Trust Corporate Advisory Fund and the Bishop Ott Works of Mercy Trust.
Through grant funding, a portion of the manuals are available free of charge. When those manuals are gone, the price will be $15, according to Alzheimer’s Services.
To get a copy of the manual, call Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, at (225) 334-7494 or email Dana Territo, at email@example.com.
An emergency kit
Prepare an emergency kit, kept in a watertight container, that might include:
A couple of sets of comfortable clothes.
Supplies of medicine or at least a list of medications, with dosages.
Velcro shoes or sneakers.
A spare pair of eyeglasses.
Extra identification items, such as an ID bracelet and clothing tags.
Hand lotion or other items that bring comfort.
Bottled water and favorite items or foods.
A pillow, toy or something else to hug.
Such important information as copies of power-of-attorney documents, medical documents and insurance and Social Security cards, as well as physicians’ names and phone numbers.
A recent photo of the person with dementia.
Safeguards and aids
Consider registering persons who have dementia with the national Alzheimer’s Association’s Medic Alert and Safe Return program, which helps locate persons who have wandered away from their home or caregivers.
A helpful item, called the EMFinders EMSeeQ, can be worn by the loved one like a watch. It uses cellular technology to help locate people who are lost.
Sometimes it’s necessary to discreetly inform others — such as hotel staff, airline workers or shelter staff — that the loved one has dementia. The website http://www.alzstore.com has cards that can be handed to others, with that message.
As a hurricane approaches
Purchase extra medications.
If the loved one uses oxygen, get portable tanks.
Limit how much the loved one witnesses the disaster. For example, try not to let them see a storm through a window.
Get to a safe place, and if evacuation is likely, try to leave as early as possible to minimize long delays in traffic.
Tell others about the plans. Make sure someone other than the primary caregiver has copies of the loved one’s medical history, medications and doctors’ contact information.