Family caregivers are planners extraordinaire. We have to be. Our meal planning, medication management and priority juggling all demand it. But what about planning for events we have absolutely no control over and no way of predicting?
Often it takes a disaster to shock us into making emergency plans. Fires, floods, ice storms and tornadoes are just a few of the natural disasters that befall ordinary Canadian families with increasing intensity, as global warming makes our weather more unpredictable.
Floods in eastern Ontario and Quebec this week have triggered many caring Canadians to think about emergency preparedness for their loved ones.
My mother was evacuated from her home in the outskirts of Montreal, along with all the other seniors in her residence. The fire department managed the transport and all affected residents are being well cared for in temporary quarters.
The disaster galvanized many people’s spirit of community contribution. Hundreds of volunteers pitched in to fill sandbags in Quebec and Ontario.
At the Montreal community centre where my mother and I had lunch after her evacuation, neighbours streamed in announcing, “We’re here to help.”
When frail elders began anxiously asking to go home, volunteers and staff attended gently with cups of tea and quiet conversation. Others passed sandwiches or washed dishes.
We have now made arrangements to bring Mom home to family until the floodwaters recede and her building is repaired. We are deeply grateful for the first responders and the kindness of strangers. And we realize how important it is for natural caregivers to be prepared.
A key component of any disaster response plan is creating a co-ordinated network of personal support. Relief agencies recommend that at least three friends be identified who live nearby and who agree to help in case of emergency. They should know two escape routes, and how to assist an individual according to their needs and abilities.
But a network of support alone is not enough. The government of Canada Emergency Preparedness Guide for People with Disabilities or Special Needs suggests a three-part approach:
- Know the risks.
- Make a plan.
- Get an emergency kit.
Identifying personal risks of disaster involves a review of potential weather events or fire hazards, in combination with the evacuation needs posed by a loved one’s physical or cognitive challenges. At least two escape routes should be planned and rehearsed.
Wheelchair users, owners of service animals and individuals with communication disorders are also advised to register with local police and fire departments. Most municipalities suggest including information such as a description of essential medical equipment or details on a service animal. Emergencies reported from the home address of individuals on file will be flagged and first responders will be equipped with the information they need to help quickly and efficiently.
The Red Cross sells emergency kits online but caregivers will have to include other items particular to their loved ones’ health needs. A well-organized caregiver emergency kit will have mobility or medical devices, chargers, medications, a health history with physician contact information and insurance details. Extra cash, keys, water and snacks are items that everyone in the midst of disaster will need.
Caregivers choosing to wait out disasters at home should evaluate the risks carefully. For example, cold temperatures cause hypothermia quickly in the frail elderly or in people with physical disabilities. Loss of electrical power may make caring for someone who requires oxygen therapy or other medical devices dangerous or impossible. In such cases, municipal public health departments will help make arrangements for supportive temporary housing.
Disasters are miserable for those who are displaced from their homes, especially the vulnerable. But they also offer opportunities for neighbours to help each other.
In the flooded areas of eastern Ontario and Quebec, home-space sharing website Airbnb activated its disaster response service, cancelling all service fees and encouraging anyone with extra bedrooms to make them available at no charge. To date, Airbnb has provided more than 3,000 accommodations to disaster victims, as well as to emergency workers in affected areas worldwide. There’s an option for renters to offer their home or room at no charge and Airbnb even offers specialized training to philanthropic hosts of victims in some cities.
The worst of weather brings out the best in people. Disasters are terrible, but they’re also an opportunity to connect with family and to forge bonds with new friends in the community.
Disasters like the recent flooding also remind us to always be prepared.
Donna Thomson is a caregiver, author and activist. She wrote The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned From a Life of Caregiving (2014) and blogs at The Caregivers’ Living Room (www.donnathomson.com). She is a board director of the Kids Brain Health Network and advises from a family perspective on numerous health research projects. She also teaches families how to advocate for care at The Advocacy School and The Caregiver Network. She writes Caring Connections with Vickie Cammack.
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