Navigating Forest Fires and Heat Waves, Oregon Keeps Seniors Safe

But as more serious disasters in Florida and Texas show, questions remain about how prepared Oregon will be for a disaster that affects more people.

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have been like a post-traumatic shock for a country that survived Hurricane Katrina, which took the lives of 215 people in nursing homes and hospitals, often because the system was not prepared to look out for these people.

Once again, our elders and most vulnerable citizens were neglected and left behind in the disaster planning in at least two circumstances. Eight nursing home residents died in Florida after they were left in 110-degree conditions for an extended period, and responders to receding flood waters in Texas found a residential facility where seniors were left in beds surrounded by standing fecal water.

Oregon seems better prepared for natural disasters, as safeguards that do not seem to have been in place in the Florida tragedy helped protect senior citizens in the state’s less dramatic natural crises this summer, when residents faced all-time-high temperatures and heat-fueled forest fires across the state, a likely consequence of climate change which will make such summers the norm.

Jerry Cohen, the state AARP director, said that after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, his organization convened a group that put together disaster plans to minimize such deaths from natural disasters. This summer, both the heat and the fires threatened elderly residents acutely, but the system that has been strengthened since Katrina worked to ensure some of the state’s most vulnerable people were accounted for.

A Department of Human Services’ field worker, Marsha Ellis, said a handful of senior foster care homes were evacuated both from the Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings and the Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge, and the residents were safely moved to other facilities until the fire was abated. “They were all safely evacuated and had a plan.”

Such a plan would also ensure that a resident’s medications and sufficient staffing would follow them to the new location. Cohen said he encourages facilities to keep a small USB drive on a necklace for each resident so that the medical records can be as portable as the patient, rather than depend on paper records or even computer systems that may be destroyed or not immediately accessible.

As the fires grew, Ellis said her team was in contact with the registered care facilities that were threatened, helping to ensure that they had a plan in place if evacuation orders were given. “All in all in this fire situation, I find the facility administrators are really making sure that our seniors and consumers in the facilities are protected,” she said. “If we have an opportunity to be proactive, we will.”

DHS spokesman Tom Peine added that consumers receiving long-term care supports at home were also contacted near these fires and offered wheelchair-accessible transportation if needed.

Oregon also benefits from a volunteer program in the state long-term care ombudsman’s office, through which concerned citizens routinely check on elders at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

During the height of the August heat wave, one such volunteer visited the residents of the Forest Glen assisted-living facility in Canyonville, south of Roseburg, and found some seniors sweltering in 92-degree heat. Once reported, the manager of the facility promptly purchased window air-conditioning units for the residents.

The state doesn’t require air conditioning, and unlike Florida, parts of Oregon may still not need it, despite recent hotter summers. But at one time neither Florida nor Oregon had air-conditioning and the law requires facilities to keep seniors cool, which might mean opening up windows or keeping them cool with ice water and ice pops as well as fans.

While the system worked for these slow-moving disasters, especially in sparsely populated rural areas, Long-Term Care Ombudsman Fred Steele said he was less certain the state would be able to handle a major disaster like a tsunami, and the system remains untested when it comes to evacuating larger facilities like a nursing home or assisted living. None of the evacuated long-term care homes had more than five residents.

The foul air caused by forest fires in the Cascades have posed another problem for long-term care facilities and residents -- balancing the need to keep seniors safe with their right to live as freely as possible. Steele said some facilities were erring too far toward the former, and forcing residents to stay cooped up indoors for weeks on end, leading to less exercise and a diminished quality of life.

“We’ve been hearing reports of facilities locking people indoors,” he said. “It’s tough for facilities because if they fail to keep residents safe, they’re fined and penalized. They’re not really penalized for restricting residents’ freedom.”

Steele said he wanted to convene a study group over the winter to help facilities strike a better balance, whether to simply limit but not exclude residents from outdoor time, or to plan more trips to the mall or other large indoor spaces that would allow seniors to roam without exposing them to wood smoke.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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