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Aiding Senior Citizens who have been Displaced by Wildfires

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Latest Update as of October 2023


Early in August 2023, a number of wildfires that the US government refers to as the "Hawaii Firestorm" erupted in the US state of Hawaii, primarily on the island of Maui. In the town of Lahaina on the northwest coast of Maui, the wind-driven fires forced evacuations, caused extensive damage, killed at least 97 people, and left at least 31 others missing. Dry, gusty conditions brought on by a potent high-pressure region to the north of Hawaii and Hurricane Dora to the south were blamed for the spread of the flames.

As the deceased's names are released, a preliminary pattern has emerged: many of the fatalities were people over the age of 65. The deaths serve as a reminder that elderly are frequently most at risk in quickly spreading fires, even if many more casualties will undoubtedly be recognized in the weeks and months to come and will very certainly represent a wide cross-section of the population.

Hundreds of elderly people who were in danger were saved by the heroic deed, but many family members, friends, and caregivers are now questioning how to best help elderly people cope with the abrupt change. Many senior citizens have been transported far from their homes.

Dr. Roger Wong, clinical professor of geriatric medicine at UBC, was our source for information on the effects this is having on elders and the actions family members may take to support those they care about.

What effects do evacuations have on elderly people receiving long-term care, particularly those who have dementia or Alzheimer's disease?

Elderly people can be especially vulnerable to sudden changes in their daily routine and environment. This is especially true for those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's who could have trouble grasping the full gravity of the circumstance. This might show up in a variety of ways, such as feelings of confusion, low mood, anxiety and depression, or it can lead to unanticipated reactionary behaviors like anger or disappointment. Moving to a new environment can also make pre-existing medical conditions worse and make mobility, hearing, and visual impairments that many seniors encounter worse.

This abrupt adjustment is a great loss for many senior citizens receiving long-term care. Their house is long-term care, not just a place. It serves as their network of friends and neighbors. It is a devastating loss to suddenly have to leave everything behind; it affects one's mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Because every person's experience is different, it's critical that we assist elders receiving long-term care and extend to them patience, empathy, and compassion. Additionally, I want to thank the amazing teams of healthcare professionals — including nurses, personal support workers, care aides, and many others — who have been working nonstop to protect residents of long-term care facilities from wildfires and to make these transitions as seamless as possible.

What doable actions can the public take to assist moved older adults?

1. Reestablishing a regular schedule for each individual as soon as possible - It is one of the most important stages. Resuming a routine can provide one a sense of security and comfort. Routines should include meals, sleep schedules, hygiene, activities, medical care and, if possible, consistent staffing. It's crucial to maintain that regimen. We want to limit the number of room changes and interruptions that people go through as much as we can.

2. Early and prompt return to physical activity - It will have numerous advantages, including maintaining physical health and reducing stress. Even while it's advantageous to plan sociability and friendship-fostering group activities, doing so can be challenging in an emergency when resources are limited. In order to keep elders involved in group activities remotely, technology and video conferencing solutions can help close the distance.

3. Use glasses and hearing aids - It is necessary to use glasses to maintain good vision and hearing aids to keep adequate hearing in order to minimize, or at least reduce the probability of, disorientation that may be linked with relocation.

4. The development of familiarity - Transitions can be made easier by reintegrating personal belongings, such as family photos or favorite music, into a person's life. For older people, the idea of "constant reorientation"—which entails keeping things like a clock, calendar, or newspaper close by to assist them continually orient themselves in a new environment—can be helpful.

5. Last but not least, maintaining social ties is essential - The pandemic showed us how difficult social isolation can be for many elders. Despite the fact that it might not always be possible for family members and friends to visit long-term care residents who have moved, phone and video chats can support social relationships over vast distances. The goal is to preserve as much of the sense of belonging and community among seniors as possible.

What guidance do you offer for the friends and family of residents at long-term care facilities?

Everyone is going through a difficult time right now, especially the family members of long-term care residents who, in many cases, have also been forced to relocate due to the evacuation. Many individuals are currently experiencing a sense of helplessness, but it's critical to treat yourself with kindness and to care for your own physical and emotional wellbeing in order to be able to effectively support others.

In the approach that suits your circumstances best, connect with your elderly family members. It can be beneficial to maintain a straightforward, constant message for elderly people who are living with dementia. Tell them they are secure, that they are not being abandoned, and that you love them.

For help and assistance:

The Maui Disaster Support Call Center has been opened by the State of Hawaii and Maui County. The contact center serves as a primary hub for community members impacted by the Maui wildfires and can be reached at 808-727-1550.

Community members seeking direct assistance also are encouraged to contact:

• The Federal Emergency Management Agency at 800-621-3362 for federal disaster assistance;

• The American Red Cross at 800-733-2767 for information about shelter, locating survivors and other non-government support services;

• The Hawaiʻi State Department of Health hotline for non-emergency medical and mental health needs for survivors, available at 833-833-3431 or 808-586-4468, Monday through Friday from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. HST.

• The Maui County Office on Aging for seniors and adults with disabilities services at Main Telephone: (808) 270-7774, Fax: (808) 270-7935, Statewide number, toll free: 643-ADRC(2372), ADRC TTY: 643-0889, Business hours are 7:45 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. (Hawaii Standard Time) Monday through Friday, except state & federal holidays.

As Hawaiʻi steps forward with a community-based, informed approach to disaster recovery, the state will continue to prioritize the resilience of West Maui. Survivors can contact the support line between 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. HST daily at 808-727-1550.


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