Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, long-term care facilities may be wondering how to help their own residents, families, and staff members or those directly affected by this devastating storm.  

1. Be aware of our own feelings: If we’re anxious ourselves, it’s unlikely we’re going to be of much assistance. We should take time to calm ourselves, or let others take on the task of reassuring residents, staff, and family members until we’re ready to do so.

2. Allow community members to express their concerns: Sometimes we don’t need to fix things, but can be more helpful acting as a sounding board. Often if we listen long enough, the speaker can get through the frightened feelings on his or her own.

3. Acknowledge feelings: It’s not uncommon to be fearful or anxious, which will diminish over time. Knowing this is normal can be comforting.

4. Emphasize safety procedures: Reviewing the safety procedures in the nursing home, such as backup generators, evacuation plans, and water pumps, can increase the sense of safety and control. If it seems necessary, separate group discussions can be offered for residents, staff, and family members.

5. Utilize spiritual supports: Natural disasters such as this reinforce the capriciousness of fate, and, for some people, may lead to questions of how this could have happened. Help them to understand it in terms of their spiritual beliefs.

6. Anticipate increased efforts at control: For a brief period, we might expect to see our community members striving for control in other areas of their lives. For example, residents who usually feel some anxiety using the lift to get out of bed might find it more distressing and need increased reassurance. Staff members who are normally flexible about their work assignments might be less so, and family members might be more vocal about concerns for their loved ones. We need to be gentle with ourselves right now.

7. Be prepared for denial: Many people won’t mention the storm, or won’t feel it has any relation to them at all. Let them be. They’ll bring it up if and when they need to.

8. Observe for symptoms: You might notice increased depression or anxiety, rumination (repeatedly discussing the events), tearfulness, nightmares, insomnia, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as exaggerated startle response, etc. For some people, the storm may trigger past traumas such as 9/11 and their reactions will be greater.

9. Use your mental health team members: If a resident is having difficulty in the aftermath of the storm, consider a referral to the psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Staff and family members who are distressed might be gently directed toward using their mental health benefits.

10. Provide the opportunity to be of assistance: Sending donations is a positive way to channel the energy of our communities and show the power of human kindness in the face of disaster.  Engaging residents (and families and staff) in a bake sale or some other type of fundraiser can also increase their self-worth and sense of control.

One place to donate is the Red Cross

Those needing information on how to help residents who have been relocated due the storm will find Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide for Nursing Homes an extremely helpful resource.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is a speaker and consultant on psychological issues in long-term care.  For more information, visit Dr. Barbera’s website, www.mybetternursinghome.com.