Keeping Those With Dementia Safe During Severe Weather

May 23, 2011

I live in Tuscaloosa, AL, a place devastated on April 27th by a EF-4 tornado.  Many caregivers had the difficult task of caring for their loved one during and after tornado.  The elderly in general and those with dementia specifically have special needs during these times.  There are things you can do to prepare for those all-too-frequent times when severe weather comes to our communities.

In general, the elderly fare poorly in severe weather and are in particular danger.  They are less “techno-savvy,” so they have less access to information and warning devices, such as NOAA weather radios and computers.  If the power or cable TV goes out, the person may be cut off from all advanced warning.  Additionally, many elderly people also are hard of hearing and do not hear tornado sirens, which really are not to be used for an indoor warning device anyway.  Added to this, about half of all those 85 and above have at least mild dementia.  This population may not be able to think and act quickly.

To keep elderly people safe, plan ahead.  If you hear that severe weather is predicted and your loved one lives alone or with an elderly spouse, bring the person(s) to your home BEFORE the storms arrive in your area.  Bring the person’s medications with you in case they are needed.  One of the worst places to be caught in a tornado is a car, so make certain not be on the roads during the storm.

If a warning is issued for your area, the place of greatest safety is the smallest room on the lowest floor in the center of the home, away from doors and windows.  Often, this place is an interior hall, closet , bathroom or basement.  If it is a closet, clear enough room in advance for everyone in the home to take cover.  Note that elderly people have trouble getting up and down off the floor.  You may need to move a chair in your safe room.  Also note that blankets, pillows and mattresses can be useful in protecting yourself from debris.  Move those into your safe place in advance.  If you live in a mobile home, go to a local shelter or safer structure BEFORE a warning is issued.

For those with dementia, everything is made more complicated.  The person will sense your agitation and fear, so try to stay calm.  Many balk at going into a closet or other safe place.  Try to calmly talk them into moving to safety.  If the person still refuses, make it into a game, perhaps hide and seek where the two of you hide.  Break the process of getting into your safe place into the smallest possible steps.  Especially under stress, people with dementia often refuse to do things, because they cannot remember how to do them.  Instead of saying, “There’s a tornado warning.  Let’s get in our safe place,” say instead, “Let’s stand up.  Now let’s walk across the room.  See this closet?  It is the safest place for us now.  Can you walk into the closet?  Thank you.  Can you sit in the chair?”  Give the person time to react to each step, if possible.  Whatever the scenario, break it into the smallest possible steps you can.  Remember that this process will take a lot more time than it would take you to get to your safe place alone, so you should move to the safe place immediately when a warning is issued for your area or if you believe a warning will be issued soon.  If the person still refuses, you the caregiver need to be in the safe place.

While you remain in your safe place, a person with dementia may want to leave before the “all clear” is given.  To pass the time, sing familiar songs together.  Choose songs from the person’s teens and twenties or if the person is religious, familiar hymns.  Tell stories.  Play games.  Anything to keep the person from leaving the safe place.

Do you have things that have worked for you in severe weather? Please share!

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