How to Prepare for Climate Change as a Caregiver
Alexandra Holland - LMSW, University of Texas Medical Branch; Alka Khera - MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
A daughter must relocate her mother, who has dementia, after a hurricane floods her assisted living facility.
A husband worries about his wife, who lives in the desert and has dementia, after she becomes disoriented during a recent period of extremely hot weather.
What do these people have in common? The answer is that they are facing the effects of climate change when it comes to caring for their loved ones living with dementia.
Climate change refers to the long-term changes our world is experiencing due to the over-consumption of fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels for energy, they release chemical compounds like carbon dioxide (CO2), which enter our atmosphere and trap energy from the sun (like wrapping a warm blanket around the Earth). This effect is raising global temperatures worldwide.
Climate change is also responsible for more powerful hurricanes, shifting weather patterns, more droughts and floods, and decreased availability of drinking water and food. While climate change is a threat to everyone, it poses specific challenges to people living with dementia.
For example, people with dementia can easily get urinary tract infections (UTIs) when it’s hot, which can make them more disoriented. They might also face challenges when it comes to making and following emergency plans. Physical mobility difficulties can make evacuation or relocating during emergencies even harder.
While it can be challenging to care for your loved one alongside climate change and weather-related emergencies, there are steps you can take to be better prepared.
How to Prepare Your Loved Ones for Climate Change
Consider the risks in your area. What emergencies may be most concerning nearby? These may include hurricanes, flooding, extreme heat, water quality and supply, or other emergencies. If you’re not sure, you could ask neighbors, your loved one’s doctor, or local environmental organizations for more information.
Make an emergency plan. Here are some topics to consider when planning:
- How could you and your loved one access a steady source of power during a blackout? For example, you could purchase a backup generator or determine an alternate location your loved one can go to, such as a cooling center. As a precaution, you may even be able to register your loved one with your local utility company so that their power is maintained if at all possible, depending on your location.
- What medications does your loved one take, how are they stored, and where do they get them? For medications that require temperature control, consider a safe storage solution such as an icebox. It is also recommended to have a copy of your loved one’s prescriptions in case normal supply is disrupted.
- It is important for you and your loved one to stay hydrated, especially during heatwaves. Consider setting aside and storing several gallons of drinkable water, in case the water supply is disrupted.
- Make a list of trusted individuals, such as neighbors or family members, who can help check on your loved one if something comes up, like a power outage or a heatwave. Ask them if they are able and willing to be part of your loved one’s emergency plan.
- Make a plan for how you can evacuate your loved one if you need to, including where they can go and how they will get there.
- Do your local emergency responders have a program that informs them of citizens with medical conditions who may need extra help in the event of a disaster or other emergency? If so, consider registering your loved one.
Communicate your plan. This includes communicating, as much as possible, with your loved one while considering their ability to understand the plan. To help overcome challenges with communication or memory, you could make printouts with pictures, bullet points, and emergency contacts, and store them in a visible place. You can also involve others, such as other family members and their healthcare team. That way, everyone is on the same page and can act quickly during an emergency.
Advocate. There are actions at the local and national level that can protect us from the effects of climate change. Planting more trees helps keep streets cool, better stormwater systems reduce the risk of flooding, and more public transportation reduces the amount of pollution that makes climate change worse. Contact your local representatives or check out the resources below – your voice really matters!
While climate change is here, there are things we can do to be prepared and to keep it from getting worse. To share your preparation steps, personal experiences, or tips, feel free to connect with SBM’s Aging SIG or Climate Change & Health SIG using the contact information on the website, or by tagging us on Twitter/X (@SBMAgingSIG and @SBM_CCH).
Resources for emergency planning and for climate change advocacy:
Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Plan: https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/make-a-plan.html
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