Whatever the cause, there have been a lot of severe weather events lately. Severe weather is disruptive and catastrophic for everyone but for older adults the impending doom can be paralyzing. Sometimes denial kicks in. Sometimes it is genuine apathy for their own fate. But it can also be a lack of energy or the inability to let someone help.
I am not talking about elders who are mostly dependent, in a nursing home or assisted living residence where the people in charge have some level of authority to insist on an evacuation. I am talking about the elders who live independently for the most part, the ones who have managed to get by for the most part and are fiercely proud of that independence.
Refusing to ask for help leads to many bad decisions by elders. Eschewing a cane even when every step hurts. Saying they don’t really need a shower but underneath being afraid they will slip in the tub. Or simply relying on their own experience above all other evidence. And of course, a cognitive impairment (a.k.a. mild dementia) can make asking for help impossible.
The greatest obstacle to “protecting” elders in a crisis is the legal issue of competence. If someone is considered mentally competent – their doctor has not determined they are unable to make decisions for legal, financial, medical, and other purposes – we can’t suddenly override that autonomy just because there is a crisis. I can almost hear some of you responding: “Yes, but…!” Remember, just because you feel someone is making a horrible decision doesn’t mean they are incompetent. That 85-year-old woman who uses a walker and insists on staying in her beachfront home as Irma bears down can’t be forced to go to a shelter any more than the 35-year-old able-bodied guy who has just taken all sorts of precautions. We all might watch in shock as the police let her stay, but she is entitled to make her own choices.
Another obstacle is denial. Denial that the disaster will really be as bad as forecast: “we have had fires on these hills before” or “I stuck it out through Andrew and I can stick it out through Irma.” There is also denial that they need special support because they can’t see that they aren’t as capable as they were when that last storm hit. They also see only the storm and not the aftermath. An 89-year-old man who can weather a storm by hunkering down may not be able to handle a week without A/C or fresh food but because he is in panic mode he can’t quite see that issue because he is so focused on the storm itself. These are often the people we see on television being rescued and brought to shelters. And if you notice, they are rescuing young and old alike!
The real challenge is convincing someone that they really do need help – and in a crisis there isn’t time to be sensitive to feelings or present it in a way that is gentle. Instead of “Dad, what do you think about looking into getting a flight out before the storm hits” it needs to be “Dad, I made a call and you are on a flight that leaves tomorrow morning at 10.”
Often the need for such intervention with a “competent” person is long overdue and the storm is the catalyst for a shift in the dynamic. Don’t be afraid of the ramifications because odds are the person you help will not be angry – at least not underneath. They might complain about the accommodations at their refuge or mention on the phone to a friend how you didn’t show respect; but don’t despair. Listen for the asides or hear the tone. Often the elder just doesn’t know how to admit you were right – hey, even young people struggle with that sort of thing!
Toes are stepped on, feelings are hurt, family dynamics are altered. You have to decide what is more important. And I haven’t even mentioned the challenges of having more than one adult child involved and perhaps having different opinions on the “right” thing to do!
Families where the adult children are more involved or engaged either on a weekly or daily basis are going to fare better than those who have kept their distance and had minimal engagement. But just being involved doesn’t guarantee a successful intervention when a crisis hits because the elder is not always going to act rationally – this again, isn’t limited to elderly people.
Finally, what are the takeaways here?
- A weather crisis shines a spotlight on an elder’s weaknesses;
- Any crisis can expose the limited influence an adult child has on their parent, especially when they try to abruptly step in and “take control” when the groundwork for that action isn’t in place;
- Storm crises highlight the need to be engaged and involved with an elderly parent’s life ongoing and not expect to be able to step in at the moment of crisis and take over; and finally;
- Competence means being capable of making decisions but those decisions don’t have to be ones that the adult children feel are the right decisions.
No one wants to confront their parents about their needs, especially in a time of crisis. That is why every professional in the elder care industry stresses the need to have these “what if” discussions during calmer times and to lay the foundation for that parent to take them seriously and listen when their kids step in to help.