Prepared for the Worst

Prepared for the Worst

When communities go through a crisis like a hurricane two things get them through: the dedication of people to help one another and the knowledge that they know what needs to be done.

This is how the Homewatch CareGivers offices hit by Superstorm Sandy at the end of October got through the aftermath of the storm, continuing to provide senior home care for those who needed it.

“The most challenging thing is that when something like this happens, the whole world is disrupted,” said Larry Aronson, owner and operator of the Homewatch CareGivers office in Essex County, New Jersey. “It was the longest week of my life.”

“We made it through a month to forget,” said Peter Cornier, who, along with Ada Otero, owns and operates the office in Middlesex and Monmouth counties in New Jersey, one of the areas hit hardest by Sandy.

Because of Homewatch CareGivers’ 30 years of in-field experience in dealing with emergencies, we provide a checklist for our offices to consider so they are ready for a crisis. These tips guide employees through emergency situations like Sandy, through tornadoes and hail storms in the spring and summer, and through ice storms in the winter.

Here are just a few of the tips:

  • Maintain up-to-date phone and email lists and keep copies of the schedule.
  • Prioritize clients based on care needs.
  • Plan ahead and offer services to clients ahead of time.
  • Keep in contact with employees and clients through a telephone tree.
  • Stockpile emergency supply kits. These kits can include safety items like water and food, or helpful items like extra chargers for laptops and cellphones.
  • Recommend employees keep personal emergency kits in their cars.
  • Remain calm and show you have everything under control.

In May 2008, a massive tornado swept through the town of Windsor in northern Colorado. Don Gaymon’sHomewatch CareGivers office was in its path. After it was over, the office no longer had two walls or a roof. Don believes the organization of a home care agency kept his caregivers going after the storm.

“You can’t control your caregivers directly when you have no power, but as long as they are trained and know what the expectations are, they keep providing care,” Don said.

Don says he is now better prepared for conditions like blizzards because of the tornado. His office always thinks about emergencies and how to be ready. Every caregiver that goes through orientation learns about emergency preparedness. For example, when winter weather is coming, he reminds his caregivers to bring an extra change of clothes with them in case heavy snow keeps them at a client’s house longer than expected.

Each office in Sandy’s path spent the days leading up to the storm calling clients and making sure they were ready for the storm. Caregivers were in placed in homes where they were needed by our offices around New Jersey and in Pennsylvania. These offices have experience with this sort of situation every winter when they plan for major snowstorms. Kathy Kowalski, owner and operator of the office in Ocean County, New Jersey, checked in with each client to make sure they were ready and she had people on call just in case. Paul and Belinda Gordon’s office in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania did the same thing.

“We have three office people who generally do on call for us and whenever there’s a situation like this. They all have cellphones and luckily they can get online to look at the schedules,” Belinda said.

Ada and Peter make sure their clients have a plan B in case their caregivers cannot get there. They go through with the clients on how to solve any unforeseen problem that might come up. That includes contacting their families to discuss what is best for the person who is getting care.

“We have some people that live alone and their families are far away. We tell their families that we can put a caregiver in place so they can stay overnight until the emergency is over,” Ada said. “We also look at the diagnoses. Someone with dementia who can normally function on their own, well during a time of stress that dementia can really get out of hand.”

“You get everybody in place and you say, ‘We’re OK now.’ You figure this is going to be a problem for a day or two, but you have people situated in the right place,” Larry said.

Things became more complicated with Sandy because the aftermath did not just last one or two days. The storm knocked out power to thousands of people for more than a week. Eight days into the aftermath, people still did not have electricity. When the temperature dropped in the area, it made it more dangerous.

“You have to re-look at the whole list of who is where. You have caregivers saying, ‘I have to get home because my children are at home. There’s no power at my house and there’s no school. I can’t stay here any longer,’” Larry said.

Staffing became a challenge for each Homewatch CareGivers office in the area and this was compounded by the loss of power and lines at gas stations.

“Normally, people would go out to their cars to charge their cellphones, but then they have no gas and they can’t get gas – there were four or five hour waits to fill up the car and that’s only on your day, because there was rationing,” Larry said. “We were literally trading cars based on who had rationing access that day to pick up and deliver caregivers. Even the cab companies had no gas.”

Larry’s office, like the others, used iPads to communicate with caregivers. They also rerouted office phones, which lost power, to cellphones.

“Thank goodness for iPads and thank goodness for the phones that we were able to charge in the car,” Ada said.

Another tip Homewatch CareGivers recommends to its offices is to plan alternate ways to maintain operations if the office is unusable due to power outages, or if it was damaged like in Don’s situation. Following Sandy, many office employees worked out of homes while getting support from the home office in Colorado. These options are a benefit that being part of a larger operation like Homewatch CareGivers provides because a smaller, locally-based agency becomes limited by fewer resources.

A larger agency is also able to maintain the “business as usual” attitude because of the larger pool of caregivers that are available. If clients use a registry, therefore employing a caregiver directly, they don’t have others to fall back on during an emergency. This is where a phone tree becomes very helpful. The ability to contact all available caregivers to get the help that is needed provides an umbrella of coverage for all clients.

In the case of the Windsor tornado, the storm knocked out most of the phone lines, but the telephone tracking and reporting system still functioned. Caregivers could still call in, using cellphones, to let the office know clients were covered.

“There was a way of tracking if they were on the job or not on the job. We did that until we got electricity back and that was five days down the way,” Don said. “With a registry, there’s no way to keep track of these people’s time except to rely on them. We have a level of oversight you don’t find with a registry. If you have independent contractors, they act like independent contractors.”

Even though Don’s office was severely damaged, operations continued.

“We did not go out of business as far as providing services. I was very proud of our caregiving crew for that,” he said. “The caregivers know that we’re in the business of providing care to these people and we are just going to keep doing it even though we don’t know what happened to the management office.”

One of the most important tips for emergency preparedness is to keep calm. By keeping a clear head during a crisis, each staff member stays focused and acts when needed. In the aftermath of Sandy, as they got word from the office of who needed help, caregivers went to the homes of any clients they could reach, despite who they were normally scheduled to work with. Additionally, many caregivers invited clients into their homes because they had power and the clients did not. Caregivers changed their schedules and did whatever was needed to make sure people were safe.

“The cases where care was required, where it’s not an option, we didn’t leave anybody unattended who needed someone to be there for them,” Larry said. “Everybody was at their wits end. Everybody’s patience was short and it was important to be able to rise above that.”

What people need during an emergency is reliability. That is what three decades of experience has taught each Homewatch CareGivers office. The staff members at each office worked tirelessly through the storm. Belinda’s schedulers each lost power so they went to the homes of family and friends to keep working. Kathy had caregivers who lost their homes but kept working after they had to take refuge in shelters and hotels. When a member of Peter and Ada’s staff lost her home due to flooding, another staff member, their client care coordinator, kept things running alone for several days. Larry’s staff only stopped working to eat or sleep.

“They’re just wonderful,” Kathy said.

“I was very proud of them, but not surprised because they do those kinds of things all the time. That’s the way the Homewatch CareGivers team is,” Belinda said.

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