Hurricanes create special challenges for Alzheimer's caregivers. This guide aims to help
Hurricane season brings special challenges for the more than 550,000 Florida seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.
Now a disaster guide -- published shortly before Hurricane Ian struck -- aims to help them prepare.
Overwhelmed with anxiety
The urgent TV reports on an approaching hurricane are enough to make anyone anxious. But for a senior living with Alzheimer’s, the confusion and anxiety can be overwhelming.
Kathy Wahl in Melbourne saw that last September. She takes care of her husband of 48 years, who has Alzheimer’s. He was OK during previous hurricanes.
"A couple years ago he was able to help me, you know, close the shutters and fill the sandbags and do whatever we needed to do," she said.
Hurricane Ian was different. Her husband grew anxious after hearing alerts on TV for warnings and watches across the state, Wahl said. "I mean, tornadoes were nowhere near us, but my husband just jumped up from the chair, ran to the outside, started slamming our hurricane shutters."
Wahl said he was confused, and when she went out to stop him, he grabbed her arm and was getting ready to punch her. She started screaming.
"You have to realize he's six two and I'm only five two," Wahl added.
After that, Wahl rode out the storm at her brother’s house, while one of her sons came to stay with her husband. She says her husband is now on an anti-anxiety drug, and that helps.
As for this hurricane season, she said: "I will not turn on any television or radios that have hurricane announcements."
They’ll be watching game shows or Westerns instead.
A resource for caregivers
Wahl is one of an estimated 827,000 caregivers in Florida helping people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
It’s for them that University of South Florida researcher Lindsay Peterson and the Alzheimer’s Association published the "Disaster Preparedness for Dementia Caregivers" guide. There's also a series of videos in connection with the guide.
Making those plans and preparations will help the caregiver remain calm and that itself will help lessen the anxiety for the person with dementia, Peterson said. "It's that sense that, yes, things are abnormal, but this person I’m with seems to know what they’re doing and they seem to be in control and so that’s good."
The guide has advice in plain language about planning for evacuations, building a disaster kit, preparing to visit a shelter and communicating during the crisis.
It addresses the risk of wandering and strategies for reducing anxiety.
Peterson also recommended getting the person with dementia involved in preparing for the storms.
In New Smyrna Beach, 81-year-old Jim Fitzgerald takes that approach, talking things through with his wife, Carol, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 10 years ago.
"We also have a belief," Fitzgerald said, "that we need to communicate directly with each other on all of the things, good, bad or indifferent, that we have to face with this disease."
Last fall, they had supplies, a plan, a generator, and, fortunately, no flooding. They came through with only minor damage.
Fitzgerald said his wife is still physically able to help and they make it a team effort. They also stay in close contact with their adult children.
The disaster guide recommends that kind of communication. Peterson said sharing disaster plans and scheduling check-ins with friends or family members will provide a backup in case something goes wrong.
And those contacts reduce the caregiver’s isolation.
"And this is one thing we heard a lot also from the caregivers is I just feel so alone in this process," she added.
Her guide can help, but Peterson said there’s a need to reach those caregivers -- and the increasing number of other seniors aging in place -- and assist them personally in preparing for hurricanes.