Helping the Elderly Deal with the Stress of Relocation After a Disaster

Reviewed Feb 18, 2016

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Summary

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Issues and tips regarding stress effects in the elderly

Several issues need to be taken into account when helping elderly friends and family who may be under stress after a disaster and who are suffering from the effects of a sudden relocation.

Communication problems

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Normal age-related slowing of thinking, problems with seeing and hearing, and reduced ability to physically move because of illnesses or the effects of medications may cause this. 

Tip: Make sure that the elderly person has the eyeglasses he needs and that his hearing aid is on before talking to him. Be patient and calm. Speak loudly enough for him to hear you, but do not shout. Keep your messages simple and clear. Repeat information and make sure that the person in your care hears and understands what is said.

Danger from falls

Be aware that in unfamiliar settings, clutter and poor lighting could cause an elderly person to fall. Balance problems, muscle weakness, and medications can add to his risk of falling.

Tip: Check new living quarters for anything that could lead to a fall, for example, loose throw rugs. Make sure stairs and hallways are well lit and provide walking assistance if needed.

Chronic illness and dietary considerations

Arthritis may prevent an elderly family member from standing in line. Some medications can cause mental confusion or a greater susceptibility to problems such as dehydration. Memory problems can cause communication problems. Neglect of special meal needs in certain illnesses can lead to medical crises.

Tip: As soon as possible, make sure the elderly family member

  • has all of his medicines with him
  • eats the foods required to manage his illnesses
  • has written diet and medication information with him in case he is separated from you
  • establishes contact with his medical care provider or that you help him find a new one and provide his medical history to the care provider  

Disoriented behavior

At night, when nearby surroundings are not seen as well as in the day, some elderly with mild or moderate dementia or problems thinking clearly can become confused about where they are. You may need to orient them to time and place.

Tip: Make sure the elderly person has a clock and a calendar in his room. If you have any familiar things of his, place those in his room. Be sure that there is some soft, non-glaring light in his room and that it is as quiet and calm as possible. If you cannot reorient the elderly person to where he is and your efforts upset him, just reassure him that things are okay or distract him with other activities.

Multiple loss effect

The elderly family member who may have lost his spouse, income, home, or physical capabilities may have difficulty “bouncing back” from his loss.

Tip: Show empathy for the person’s situation by listening. Give comfort by your presence and let him know you are there and care for him. Do not minimize what he has lost. 

Worries about loss of independence

Loss of the ability to live independently because of disaster-related injury or loss of home can be the biggest blow that a disaster deals the elderly.

Tip: Within the constraints of the situation, allow them to do what they can for themselves and keep as much dignity and independence as is possible.

“Welfare” stigma and unfamiliarity with bureaucracy

Many older family members are unwilling to accept government “welfare” assistance because they have always “paid their way.” In a disaster, however, government help may be needed. Their unwillingness to accept help may be made worse by unfamiliarity with government services for which they are eligible, particularly during disasters.

Tip: If the person is reluctant to accept assistance, relate the assistance to a time when he helped someone in need or explain that this help comes from taxes he has paid.

Getting too hot or too cold

Older persons may not handle extremes of heat or cold well. Either too much heat or cold can have marked effects upon them. This becomes critical in disasters that close down furnaces or air conditioners.

Tip: Be aware of the need to keep elderly family members out of extremes of heat and cold.

Dehydration

Elderly persons are more susceptible to dehydration. They do not feel thirsty as quickly as young people do and do not drink water and other liquids as often. Some of the medicine they take can also lead to water loss.

Tip: Check to make sure that your elderly relatives have access to safe, clean drinking water and that they are drinking it. Watch for signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes, no tears, and dry mouth.

Language and cultural barriers

Lower reading skills among some elders and inadequate command of the English language among speakers of other languages can cause confusion and frustration at relief centers or in new housing locations.

Tip: Try to match the elderly person with someone fluent in his or her native language.

Senior citizens dealing with change

Remember that elderly persons have the strengths gained from a lifetime of coping with adversity. Know also that elderly people tend to under-report problems, both to family and physicians, as they may want to cope on their own. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to how they feel and act in times of change and relocation.

Signs of stress in the elderly

The elderly can suffer various symptoms from worsening of pre-existing medical problems, problems with medications, new illnesses or psychological stress. Therefore, it is important to make sure that they are medically stable before deciding these symptoms are due to emotional stress. Under stress, whether from physical or emotional sources, the elderly can

  • become mentally confused
  • tire easily
  • withdraw from friends and family
  • in severe cases, undergo personality changes  

You should also know that the elderly might tend to complain of bodily symptoms rather than emotional problems when under stress. Again, remember not to dismiss any bodily symptoms as just due to stress.

Special issues for the frail elderly

Many elderly are very healthy, well-functioning, capable adults. For example, at age 60 years, only 15 percent of elderly people suffer from dementia, at age 85 years, 50 percent of the elderly are affected by dementia. The “older” more frail elderly are the ones who may be more vulnerable in a disaster due to medical illnesses.

How to help the elderly deal with stress

In general terms, these principles will help guide you when helping an elderly person deal with the stress of evacuation and relocation:

  • Provide strong and persistent verbal reassurance.
  • Assist with recovery of physical possessions as is safe, make frequent home visits, and arrange for companions.
  • Give special attention to suitable residential relocation, ideally in familiar surroundings with friends or acquaintances.
  • Help re-establish contact with family and friends.
  • Assist in obtaining medical and financial assistance.
  • Help re-establish medication and any dietary regimens.
  • Provide transportation to the doctor, grocery store, etc.
Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/publications/100233-RelocationStress.pdf

Summary

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Issues and tips regarding stress effects in the elderly

Several issues need to be taken into account when helping elderly friends and family who may be under stress after a disaster and who are suffering from the effects of a sudden relocation.

Communication problems

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Normal age-related slowing of thinking, problems with seeing and hearing, and reduced ability to physically move because of illnesses or the effects of medications may cause this. 

Tip: Make sure that the elderly person has the eyeglasses he needs and that his hearing aid is on before talking to him. Be patient and calm. Speak loudly enough for him to hear you, but do not shout. Keep your messages simple and clear. Repeat information and make sure that the person in your care hears and understands what is said.

Danger from falls

Be aware that in unfamiliar settings, clutter and poor lighting could cause an elderly person to fall. Balance problems, muscle weakness, and medications can add to his risk of falling.

Tip: Check new living quarters for anything that could lead to a fall, for example, loose throw rugs. Make sure stairs and hallways are well lit and provide walking assistance if needed.

Chronic illness and dietary considerations

Arthritis may prevent an elderly family member from standing in line. Some medications can cause mental confusion or a greater susceptibility to problems such as dehydration. Memory problems can cause communication problems. Neglect of special meal needs in certain illnesses can lead to medical crises.

Tip: As soon as possible, make sure the elderly family member

  • has all of his medicines with him
  • eats the foods required to manage his illnesses
  • has written diet and medication information with him in case he is separated from you
  • establishes contact with his medical care provider or that you help him find a new one and provide his medical history to the care provider  

Disoriented behavior

At night, when nearby surroundings are not seen as well as in the day, some elderly with mild or moderate dementia or problems thinking clearly can become confused about where they are. You may need to orient them to time and place.

Tip: Make sure the elderly person has a clock and a calendar in his room. If you have any familiar things of his, place those in his room. Be sure that there is some soft, non-glaring light in his room and that it is as quiet and calm as possible. If you cannot reorient the elderly person to where he is and your efforts upset him, just reassure him that things are okay or distract him with other activities.

Multiple loss effect

The elderly family member who may have lost his spouse, income, home, or physical capabilities may have difficulty “bouncing back” from his loss.

Tip: Show empathy for the person’s situation by listening. Give comfort by your presence and let him know you are there and care for him. Do not minimize what he has lost. 

Worries about loss of independence

Loss of the ability to live independently because of disaster-related injury or loss of home can be the biggest blow that a disaster deals the elderly.

Tip: Within the constraints of the situation, allow them to do what they can for themselves and keep as much dignity and independence as is possible.

“Welfare” stigma and unfamiliarity with bureaucracy

Many older family members are unwilling to accept government “welfare” assistance because they have always “paid their way.” In a disaster, however, government help may be needed. Their unwillingness to accept help may be made worse by unfamiliarity with government services for which they are eligible, particularly during disasters.

Tip: If the person is reluctant to accept assistance, relate the assistance to a time when he helped someone in need or explain that this help comes from taxes he has paid.

Getting too hot or too cold

Older persons may not handle extremes of heat or cold well. Either too much heat or cold can have marked effects upon them. This becomes critical in disasters that close down furnaces or air conditioners.

Tip: Be aware of the need to keep elderly family members out of extremes of heat and cold.

Dehydration

Elderly persons are more susceptible to dehydration. They do not feel thirsty as quickly as young people do and do not drink water and other liquids as often. Some of the medicine they take can also lead to water loss.

Tip: Check to make sure that your elderly relatives have access to safe, clean drinking water and that they are drinking it. Watch for signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes, no tears, and dry mouth.

Language and cultural barriers

Lower reading skills among some elders and inadequate command of the English language among speakers of other languages can cause confusion and frustration at relief centers or in new housing locations.

Tip: Try to match the elderly person with someone fluent in his or her native language.

Senior citizens dealing with change

Remember that elderly persons have the strengths gained from a lifetime of coping with adversity. Know also that elderly people tend to under-report problems, both to family and physicians, as they may want to cope on their own. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to how they feel and act in times of change and relocation.

Signs of stress in the elderly

The elderly can suffer various symptoms from worsening of pre-existing medical problems, problems with medications, new illnesses or psychological stress. Therefore, it is important to make sure that they are medically stable before deciding these symptoms are due to emotional stress. Under stress, whether from physical or emotional sources, the elderly can

  • become mentally confused
  • tire easily
  • withdraw from friends and family
  • in severe cases, undergo personality changes  

You should also know that the elderly might tend to complain of bodily symptoms rather than emotional problems when under stress. Again, remember not to dismiss any bodily symptoms as just due to stress.

Special issues for the frail elderly

Many elderly are very healthy, well-functioning, capable adults. For example, at age 60 years, only 15 percent of elderly people suffer from dementia, at age 85 years, 50 percent of the elderly are affected by dementia. The “older” more frail elderly are the ones who may be more vulnerable in a disaster due to medical illnesses.

How to help the elderly deal with stress

In general terms, these principles will help guide you when helping an elderly person deal with the stress of evacuation and relocation:

  • Provide strong and persistent verbal reassurance.
  • Assist with recovery of physical possessions as is safe, make frequent home visits, and arrange for companions.
  • Give special attention to suitable residential relocation, ideally in familiar surroundings with friends or acquaintances.
  • Help re-establish contact with family and friends.
  • Assist in obtaining medical and financial assistance.
  • Help re-establish medication and any dietary regimens.
  • Provide transportation to the doctor, grocery store, etc.
Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/publications/100233-RelocationStress.pdf

Summary

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Issues and tips regarding stress effects in the elderly

Several issues need to be taken into account when helping elderly friends and family who may be under stress after a disaster and who are suffering from the effects of a sudden relocation.

Communication problems

Some older persons in shelters or in new surroundings may have difficulty:

  • understanding family and friends
  • talking to people or answering questions  

Normal age-related slowing of thinking, problems with seeing and hearing, and reduced ability to physically move because of illnesses or the effects of medications may cause this. 

Tip: Make sure that the elderly person has the eyeglasses he needs and that his hearing aid is on before talking to him. Be patient and calm. Speak loudly enough for him to hear you, but do not shout. Keep your messages simple and clear. Repeat information and make sure that the person in your care hears and understands what is said.

Danger from falls

Be aware that in unfamiliar settings, clutter and poor lighting could cause an elderly person to fall. Balance problems, muscle weakness, and medications can add to his risk of falling.

Tip: Check new living quarters for anything that could lead to a fall, for example, loose throw rugs. Make sure stairs and hallways are well lit and provide walking assistance if needed.

Chronic illness and dietary considerations

Arthritis may prevent an elderly family member from standing in line. Some medications can cause mental confusion or a greater susceptibility to problems such as dehydration. Memory problems can cause communication problems. Neglect of special meal needs in certain illnesses can lead to medical crises.

Tip: As soon as possible, make sure the elderly family member

  • has all of his medicines with him
  • eats the foods required to manage his illnesses
  • has written diet and medication information with him in case he is separated from you
  • establishes contact with his medical care provider or that you help him find a new one and provide his medical history to the care provider  

Disoriented behavior

At night, when nearby surroundings are not seen as well as in the day, some elderly with mild or moderate dementia or problems thinking clearly can become confused about where they are. You may need to orient them to time and place.

Tip: Make sure the elderly person has a clock and a calendar in his room. If you have any familiar things of his, place those in his room. Be sure that there is some soft, non-glaring light in his room and that it is as quiet and calm as possible. If you cannot reorient the elderly person to where he is and your efforts upset him, just reassure him that things are okay or distract him with other activities.

Multiple loss effect

The elderly family member who may have lost his spouse, income, home, or physical capabilities may have difficulty “bouncing back” from his loss.

Tip: Show empathy for the person’s situation by listening. Give comfort by your presence and let him know you are there and care for him. Do not minimize what he has lost. 

Worries about loss of independence

Loss of the ability to live independently because of disaster-related injury or loss of home can be the biggest blow that a disaster deals the elderly.

Tip: Within the constraints of the situation, allow them to do what they can for themselves and keep as much dignity and independence as is possible.

“Welfare” stigma and unfamiliarity with bureaucracy

Many older family members are unwilling to accept government “welfare” assistance because they have always “paid their way.” In a disaster, however, government help may be needed. Their unwillingness to accept help may be made worse by unfamiliarity with government services for which they are eligible, particularly during disasters.

Tip: If the person is reluctant to accept assistance, relate the assistance to a time when he helped someone in need or explain that this help comes from taxes he has paid.

Getting too hot or too cold

Older persons may not handle extremes of heat or cold well. Either too much heat or cold can have marked effects upon them. This becomes critical in disasters that close down furnaces or air conditioners.

Tip: Be aware of the need to keep elderly family members out of extremes of heat and cold.

Dehydration

Elderly persons are more susceptible to dehydration. They do not feel thirsty as quickly as young people do and do not drink water and other liquids as often. Some of the medicine they take can also lead to water loss.

Tip: Check to make sure that your elderly relatives have access to safe, clean drinking water and that they are drinking it. Watch for signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes, no tears, and dry mouth.

Language and cultural barriers

Lower reading skills among some elders and inadequate command of the English language among speakers of other languages can cause confusion and frustration at relief centers or in new housing locations.

Tip: Try to match the elderly person with someone fluent in his or her native language.

Senior citizens dealing with change

Remember that elderly persons have the strengths gained from a lifetime of coping with adversity. Know also that elderly people tend to under-report problems, both to family and physicians, as they may want to cope on their own. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to how they feel and act in times of change and relocation.

Signs of stress in the elderly

The elderly can suffer various symptoms from worsening of pre-existing medical problems, problems with medications, new illnesses or psychological stress. Therefore, it is important to make sure that they are medically stable before deciding these symptoms are due to emotional stress. Under stress, whether from physical or emotional sources, the elderly can

  • become mentally confused
  • tire easily
  • withdraw from friends and family
  • in severe cases, undergo personality changes  

You should also know that the elderly might tend to complain of bodily symptoms rather than emotional problems when under stress. Again, remember not to dismiss any bodily symptoms as just due to stress.

Special issues for the frail elderly

Many elderly are very healthy, well-functioning, capable adults. For example, at age 60 years, only 15 percent of elderly people suffer from dementia, at age 85 years, 50 percent of the elderly are affected by dementia. The “older” more frail elderly are the ones who may be more vulnerable in a disaster due to medical illnesses.

How to help the elderly deal with stress

In general terms, these principles will help guide you when helping an elderly person deal with the stress of evacuation and relocation:

  • Provide strong and persistent verbal reassurance.
  • Assist with recovery of physical possessions as is safe, make frequent home visits, and arrange for companions.
  • Give special attention to suitable residential relocation, ideally in familiar surroundings with friends or acquaintances.
  • Help re-establish contact with family and friends.
  • Assist in obtaining medical and financial assistance.
  • Help re-establish medication and any dietary regimens.
  • Provide transportation to the doctor, grocery store, etc.
Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/publications/100233-RelocationStress.pdf

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