Disaster communication: A tale of two mothers-in-law
Dr. Eleanor Barbera
Both of my mothers-in-law live in long-term care communities in Florida. (I'll keep the backstory about having two MILs a mystery.)
One MIL lives in a place that was excellent about how they communicated with family members before, during and after Hurricane Irma. The other MIL's facility handled that aspect of care poorly.
At Bentley Village in Naples on the southwest coast of Florida, all 800 residents of the CCRC were evacuated in advance of the storm, even when everyone thought the hurricane was heading toward the East Coast. While not every organization can afford to evacuate their residents to plush hotels, all of them can afford to do what Bentley did next.
At the top of the home page of its website they placed a bright red banner instructing site visitors to click upon it for more information on Hurricane Irma. The following page contains continually updated reports on the progress the management is making toward assessing and repairing the damage to their homes, as well as an estimate of how long the process will take. A typical entry contains the date and time of the posting, the work that's been done and what has yet to be accomplished.
They recently added photographs of the damage to the community. The photos clearly show even those most eager to return to their homes why they must wait.
In addition, there's a list of locations where people are sheltering since residents from skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living were sent to different locales. A pet-friendly hotel was selected for independent living residents with animals.
When I discovered my MIL's cell phone wasn't working, I checked the website, got the phone number of the hotel where she was staying and was immediately connected to her room. She claimed they were “having a ball.”
By contrast, my other MIL lives on the northwest coast of Florida in an assisted living facility that decided to shelter in place because the building was rated to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. While that aspect calmed us as we tracked the storm's progress to their area, we were concerned about power, water and staffing.
The phone service wasn't working in the facility so we were unable to reach them. A check of their website showed no information about Hurricane Irma or the conditions of the residents, just the same photos of sunny Florida that had been there all along.
We were lucky that, several days after the storm, the roads were cleared enough that a nearby relative was able to visit. Otherwise, we would have had no idea how my MIL was faring until the telephones were restored a week later.
During that time, news reports were circulating about dreadful conditions at other storm-swept facilities, no doubt leading to many anxious families with loved ones in Florida.
This worrisome situation could have been quickly ameliorated by guidance on their website. Even if there was some difficulty updating the information following the storm, details regarding storm preparations could have been posted in advance to allay the fears of relatives.
For example, facilities could state that they have back-up generators that will provide air conditioning and critical care needs. They can outline the plans in place for staffing during a storm and identify how they will contact families if needed or how families can contact them.
Posting this information on the website reassures all those who are concerned about the resident rather than just the first person on the face sheet, sidestepping family dynamics and bringing friends and neighbors into the loop.
It decreases the number of calls to the facility in the midst of an emergency and makes it less likely your staff will have to calm agitated family members, a task which requires special skill and training.
During this period when organizations are undoubtedly reviewing emergency procedures, consider establishing solid pre- and post-disaster communication systems. They can save time and aggravation during a crisis when attention is needed elsewhere and they can showcase the excellence of your facility.
On a separate note, but also related to communicating with families, I wanted to make you are aware of a virtual conference that might be of interest to family caregivers. Topics range from battling caregiver fatigue to paying for long-term care, with experts including Nora Super, Teepa Snow and me (on bullying in senior living). Here's a link to get more info: Caregiver Smile Summit.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with over 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.