Help Aging Parents: Storms and Pending Disasters

NYC 57th & 6th: Storm Victim of Sandy–Crane No Longer Atop Bldg.

The dire Sandy hurricane/tropical storm warnings in the NY Metropolitan area couldn’t be missed. Media people and Mayor Bloomberg et al.–as well as New Jersey’s media people and Governor Chris Christi et al.–must be sleep deprived as I write this. We’ve seen and/or heard from them continually with warnings, information, and updates on most channels since Sunday night.

We worry about older and old people, especially aging parents. Cell phones are often the only way to contact them. We hope–as we phone to check on them–that they are keeping their cell phones charged. (Soon I’ll compile a list of suggestions for aging parents and older people experiencing a storm or other emergency alert.) Older people aren’t always as compulsive about charging their phones as younger people– as many of us know.

Are the older people we know in a safe place? Will they be warm if the electricity goes? Can they prepare food on a gas stove or cooktop? Do they have fresh–as well as nonperishable food? And do they have adequate water to drink–as well as to flush toilets–should power go out in their apartment building?

We worry–and many older people worry–about pets. Animal (and fish) lovers called NY 1 (NYC’s all-news cable station) to ask about the NY aquarium at Coney Island (it was under water and assessment of the damage has not been determined as of this writing), as well as the Central Park and Bronx zoos

A fallen branch at Central Park Zoo today tempts llama but is quickly taken away

(reportedly all is well at the zoos).

Being an animal lover, I was heartened when the pet-friendly shelters (owners and pets welcome) were announced. Sometimes–perhaps more than “sometimes”–pets are an old person’s closest friend. Understandably older people can be reluctant to leave their home/apartment because of their pets. The difficulty of moving temporarily or the worry that their homes could be looted if no one is home compounds their concerns.

I made my calls to my octogenarian friends in harm’s way. All were safe and comfortable–with one exception: a 90-year-old widower. He was safe in his home where he’s alone at night but has help during the day. But he was not comfortable.

It seems the spouse of a former caregiver for his wife, living in an evacuation area, had just phoned, wanting to stay at his home–with a friend–until it was safe to return home. My 90-year-old friend was stressed. A kind man, he told the spouse it would be difficult to house 2 additional people, but to phone back if there wasn’t another place to stay. My phone call allowed him to express his anxiety and gain support and a strategy should the spouse phone again.

People can do strange things in emergencies. Asking a 90-year-old to take in two people, one of whom he doesn’t know–for a day or possibly more in an emergency situation, seems like an unthinking (or idiotic) request, doesn’t it?

Affirmation that he needn’t take on a responsibility–at 90–that was causing him anxiety, and the suggestion that he watch the caller ID# when his phone rings and only answer calls from his far-away-living children, was a start. The fact that he can’t see caller ID’s, prompted my suggestion of placing a magnifying glass near the phone. The big “THANK YOU SO MUCH” confirmed that his mind was more at ease.

A simple phone call to elderly people in impending storm or emergency situations can turn out to be more than just a call to say “I care.” It’s another way we can contribute to helping parents (and older people we care about) age well.

Pets and Parents

This week’s New Yorker magazine (Oct.12) presents three covers showing the progression of a well-dressed woman’s purchase of a fast food hamburger, for—it turns out—her French poodle.

An article in today’s New York Times Science Section (page D5), “Exploring the Health Benefits of Pets” discusses the effect of pets on children’s well being. While it focuses on children, the next-to-the-last paragraph mentions an Alzheimer’s patient’s recognition of her beloved dog.

If we’ve had a pet, we know the inexplicable bond. This is no doubt a reason why gifting a pet to older parents who seem to need a jump-start, or are lonely, has crossed the mind of many adult children. That may—or may not—be a good idea.

“Social connectedness,” according to the major studies, is one of the three most important factors in successful aging. It is such a normal part of living that we take it for granted. If we are alert we will know when the social connectedness void begins to infiltrate our parents’ lives.

Whether pets qualify as offering social connectedness no doubt depends on the people and pets involved. We know pets provide companionship; their antics provide entertainment. They “stir up the dust;” usually give unconditional love, and give purpose to their owner’s life. A 2002 study found that older people who had pets experienced better overall physical and mental health than those who didn’t.

Halise Diamond, DVM at the Animal Referral and Emergency Center in Mesa, Arizona, reminds us that pets add so much to people’s lives, but they’re also a responsibility. She emphasizes that their care should be in keeping with an older person’s strength and mental ability. For example, a forgetful pet owner who doesn’t feed or overfeeds a pet, neglects its medications or overmedicates, can cause a pet serious problems, even death. If older parents have a pet and are becoming forgetful, Dr. Diamond recommends a calendar on which a pet’s needed medications are written and then crossed off once given.

If we contemplate giving a pet–to anyone actually–we need to consider:

Does the person want a pet? (Dr. Diamond emphasizes this is true no matter the age of the intended recipient.)

If an older person is on a fixed income, consider the cost of medical care—even routine check ups can be expensive.

If mobility is a problem, a dog that needs a lot of exercise is a problem.

Puppies require a lot of training and older people aren’t as forgiving as younger people when their possessions are chewed and scratched.

Rescue cats and dogs are older and more mellow.

The staff at a good shelter knows why pets have been relinquished and should be able to select pets that are appropriate for older people.

Some birds live a long time and may outlive an elderly owner. Hmmmm. Do I want a bird?