The recent scenes of flooding brought on by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that we live in a world where natural disasters are becoming somewhat easier to predict, but as impossible as ever to prevent. While watching the destruction unfold, it starts to sink in that disasters in one form or another are all but inevitable in many parts of the country. And while you can’t always tell when and where a catastrophic hurricane, tornado, flash flood, wildfire, mud slide, earthquake or volcano eruption will occur, you deserve the peace of mind to know that the retirement community you are considering or already live in has the utmost concern for the safety of every resident. With that in mind, here are a handful of disaster preparedness criteria that every community should adhere to.
Does the community have an emergency plan -- and know that it works?
The first thing a retirement community should have is a strong emergency plan and a well-educated team in place. Without a comprehensive plan, communities can't keep up with developments in the situation when emergencies do happen. Better yet, find out if the community has experienced a disaster before and what their experience was in that situation. Were they prepared? How did the plan work? What was the end result?
Are they adequately staffed, no matter what?
A solid plan is worthless without the people to implement it. Yet, it's easy to forget that employees are usually dealing with the same emergency at home as the retirement community itself is experiencing. The staff's transportation to and from the community may be constrained by the disaster. So make sure there's a plan in place for adequate staffing during an emergency.
Ask about emergency supplies.
Find out how the community stays supplied during an emergency and if staff prepare in advance. Will there be enough food and water to last for several days? Are there extra medications for residents who will need them?
Make sure the lines of communication are clear.
A common fallout of many natural disasters is the loss of communication due to downed telephone lines and internet connections. Find out in advance how a community keeps them open, what the chain of communication is between staff, as well as between families of residents, and know where to look for updates.
Find out how residents' worries are addressed when regular routines are disrupted.
When a big weather event or crisis hits, it’s common for outings and internal events to be cancelled when it’s not safe for guests and volunteers to come in. Without the usual daily and weekly events and activities, the temptation might be to turn on the television to keep up with the latest events. However, disturbing images on a television screen – often repeated over and over – can be frightening and overwhelming for older adults, especially those with dementia. Depending on the disaster, watching television may not even be an option. That’s why most experienced communities will offer alternative ways to help pass the time. Sing-alongs, story-telling and card games are often effective ways to change the mental atmosphere.
Ask about emergency evacuation plans.
If a community is located in harm’s way, it’s good for them to have arrangements in advance with other communities and medical facilities to get out of danger safely. Ask your community about their specific arrangements.
Prepare yourself for emergency, too.
As a caregiver, it's important to prepare yourself in advance for a disaster. Knowing what a community's procedures are and how to communicate during an emergency will ease your worries and lets you focus on what you need to do at home, if necessary. Obviously, if you live in the same area as your loved one's senior living community, you may also be affected by the conditions. So make sure you have plenty of fresh water, flashlights with extra batteries, candles, blankets, emergency meals and a way to cook them for at least three days.
Also, make sure the community has the information it will need to contact you, plus alternate ways to reach you if cell phones and telephone lines are down. And by all means, take time to talk to your loved one's community about what your concerns will be in an emergency. Make sure they know what you expect and so they can address your expectations.
Through the years, Sunshine communities have weathered severe storms and other natural events, thanks to staff training and careful preparation.
“The biggest concern in our area is from tornadoes,” says Stephanie Hendrix, Executive Director at Creekside Pines in Dallas, Georgia. “Although, our snowstorms seem to get more intense every year as well. The last snowstorm we had brought 13 inches. We had staff delivering meals to every floor. We normally have at least three or four dedicated employees to stay on the property to make sure residents are taken care of.”
Tony Grieco, Executive Director at Dunwoody Pines in Dunwoody, Georgia, also has a plan in place for weather-related emergencies:
“We get significant rains and wind, which can result in power outages in the city. Fortunately, we have a generator for emergencies.”
Tony and his staff keep in touch with residents’ families and First Responders and stay on top of weather changes. They also have a three-day emergency food supply.
“We stay positive,” says Tony, “and assure residents that in the case of most natural disasters, their apartment is generally the safest place to be due to the structure of the building and that we are fully sprinklered if necessary.”
Augustus Hayes, III, Executive Director at Hammond Glen in Sandy Springs, Georgia, has confidence in their emergency plan.
“Being in an 11-story high rise can be challenging in any crisis or natural disaster,” claims Augustus. “But on the positive side our building was constructed with a series of firewalls throughout. There is three feet of concrete between floors, and the stairwells are completely encased with concrete, making them extremely safe in the event of a fire or severe storm.”
Having worked in senior housing since 1989 and at Hammond Glen for more than 20 years, Augustus has successfully managed residents and staff through several extreme weather-related situations, including:
Sunshine communities keep emergency supplies on hand in case of a disaster, as should any community that you are considering or that your loved one already lives in. Some staples found in Sunshine communities include, but are not limited to:
Staff and residents at Sunshine communities all participate in regular fire drills. Many managers and full-time staff are CPR Certified. And in case of emergencies and natural disasters, all critical staff members are required to spend the night. Maintenance staff are on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year (including holidays). And emergency vendors are also on call 24/7.
“Our main bragging point,” claims Augustus, “would be our extremely tenured and well-trained staff, that has seen its share of extreme weather-related events over the years.”
Actually, that could be said for all Sunshine communities from coast to coast. We only hope we don’t need to demonstrate it for a long time to come.