Senior Living Readies For Disaster With 5 New Prep Techniques

Hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather events can have catastrophic consequences for anyone — but those who live in senior living communities can be especially vulnerable.

“Moving someone down the hall can cause great difficulty,” says John Dolan, president and CEO of Health Care Association of New Jersey, noting that many seniors have cognitive and mobility impairments. “You can’t put seniors on a school bus [to evacuate].”

When possible, industry experts advise defending, or sheltering, in place, rather than evacuating.


But in addition to federal and state regulations that mandate specific safety policies and procedures, industry leaders are learning from past disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy and tornados in Joplin, Mo., to implement new ways to ensure resident and staff safety as a result.

1. Constructing beyond code requirements — A $9.5 million Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility that recently broke ground in southwest Oklahoma City will feature a tornado safety area because of high tornado activity in that location.

Autumn Leaves of Southwest Oklahoma City will feature a centrally located, structurally reinforced area, with added concrete, where community members can gather should the threat of a tornado arise.


“We are beefing up the wood structure to provide a higher level of protection,” says Jeffrey Billman, vice president of Curtis Group Architects Ltd. about the Autumn Leaves facility. “Since it’s in tornado alley, we are reinforcing a centralized core that is away from outside walls, with additional anchors placed into a concrete slab to better hold down the walls, and sheathing the walls with plywood to provide more strength and protection.”

Below the facility’s standard roof trusts is an additional ceiling to provide a second layer of protection, and heavier metal doors around that centralized area will help isolate the space.

“The intent is [residents and staff] will be protected from flying debri, or flying objects that become missiles [during a tornado],” Billman says, noting that while state regulations drive much of the choices behind senior living structure elements, more providers are going a step above what’s required.

The centralized area in the new Autumn Leaves community is not required by code, he says, but management opted to implement it anyway.

“It’s an operational and marketing tool — here we are providing a higher level of safety for our resident,” he says. “You see more [providers] enhancing their facilities however they can.”

2. Keeping digital records — When an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo. on May 22, 2011, it killed 16 staff and residents of a local nursing home — and 159 people overall — according to local reports.

“We find ourselves learning from storms, and each tragedy teaches us something new,” says Dolan, who at that time served as director of the Missouri Health Care Association. He recalls walking through the rubble left behind in the tornado’s wake — and seeing a car lodged in one of the nursing home’s wings.

“What we learned from the tragedy in Missouri is the importance of the identification of people,” he says.

Keeping a digital record of residents, including their dietary and medication needs, makes an already difficult situation less chaotic, he says.

“You need to know people’s critical information,” Dolan says. “You don’t have to buy an expensive camera for photo identification. You can use a [smartphone] and back up that information onto a flash drive. Make sure to have updated photographs.”

3. Web-based tracking systems — Following Hurricane Sandy, New York implemented a web-based tracking system for patient evacuations in emergencies.

Evacuation of Facilities in Disasters System (e-Finds) involves the use of pre-printed wristbands that feature bar codes and identifying numbers. Through the use of a handheld scanner and a mobile app, emergency personnel can track patients in real-time during the event of an evacuation.

“With the last hurricane people had to get out quick,” says Matthew Anderson, senior vice president of health care services, at The Osborn in Rye, N.Y. While residents of the CCRC were able to remain on campus, Anderson says some providers struggled to track residents following necessary facility evacuations.

4. Mass messaging via social media — Use of social media during the storm was instrumental to The Osborn being able to quickly relay updates to family members and the surrounding community that everyone on site was safe. The Osborn also used Facebook to tell outside residents their community had power and hot meals were available to those who needed them.

“Our biggest [hits] on Facebook were during Hurricane Sandy,” says Jane Fox, vice president of marketing and fund development at The Osborn.

Smartphones and mobile tablets have also enhanced communication between management and staff when natural disasters hit.

CCRC Parkway Place in Houston, Texas, uses a mass messaging system to contact staff about coming in, or taking additional shifts when preparing for severe weather.

“Before we would have to pull out a phone list and go down rows of names,” Sunny Chatagnier, assistant executive director at Parkway Place, a Buckner senior living community, says. “Even if a phone line is down, we can usually still send and receive text messages.”

5. Realistic test runs and medical surge training — To prepare for Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey senior living providers practiced a variety of exercises beyond standard evacuation procedures, says J. David Weidner, director of emergency preparedness for the Health Care Association of New Jersey.

“In some instances we did full-scale exercises, or medical surge exercises [when staff prepare to care for residents from other facilities in addition to those on site], Weidner says, noting that medical surge training became key for one provider who took in additional residents from other senior living communities that were forced to evacuate during Hurricane Irene.

“The feedback was that those who underwent the medical surge training were much better able to deal with the situation because of practice,” he says.

Overall, providers should think outside of the box when it comes to disaster preparedness training.

“My challenge is to get facilities to think about challenging their [disaster preparedness] program,” he says. “If your facility has two or three floors, practice evacuating residents without an elevator.”

Some practice with employees bringing other employees down the stairs.

“That teaches the importance of teamwork, and communication,” he says. “Learning how to move someone in a wheelchair down stairs who is frightened creates different challenges, versus just pushing someone in a wheelchair into an elevator, and then out into the parking lot.”

At The Osborn, staff practice various drills with residents who volunteer to participate, Anderson says.

“Every time we run through a drill we find new ways to help us prepare,” he says. “It’s all part of good planning.”

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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