By Jean Balchin 26/04/2018

As anyone who has experienced a natural disaster such as a tornado or flood will attest, natural disasters are very traumatic experiences for everyone involved. Yet they are even more dangerous for people with dementia. To this end, the QUT-based Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration: Carers and Consumers (DCRC-CC) has published a new guide, which aims to prepare those who care for people with dementia to cope.

What is dementia?

According to Dementia New Zealand, dementia is a progressive disorder where there is a decline in a variety of mental functions. The declining functions are primarily cognitive – in short, the person has a change in thinking abilities. The word “dementia” is an umbrella term covering group of disorders of cognition. Different types of dementia have different underlying disease processes and usually present with a different pattern of cognitive symptoms. However, all forms of dementia are associated with a decline in the ability to function day to day, emotional distress or behaviour changes.

According to the Dementia Economic Impact Report 2016, published in March 2017, dementia is a major and growing health challenge in New Zealand. It estimates there has been a 29% increase in numbers of people with dementia in five years – from 48,182 people in 2011 to 62,287 in 2016. It is predicted 170,212 people will have dementia by 2050.

DCRC-CC worked with the Red Cross, to bring us Preparing for a Natural Disaster Guide to using RediPlan for Carers of People with Dementia. The booklet starts with the premise that everyone in Australia (and by extension, New Zealand) should prepare for natural disasters.

“More than 425,000 Australians live with dementia and we are a country that has its fair share of natural disasters. Many of us will be impacted by one at some stage,” said lead researcher Doctor Linda Schnitker from QUT’s School of Nursing.

“For carers of people with dementia, there is an extra layer of anxiety and potential danger. They need to consider how to best help the person they care for and also protect themselves from harm.

“Research studies reveal exposure to a natural disaster may exacerbate dementia symptoms and increase the risk of functional decline, hospitalisation and mortality.

“An American study found there was an increase in deaths of residents with dementia at 30 and 90 days after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, compared to their peers not affected by it. In Australia, the negative impact of events like tropical cyclone Yasi (2011) on older people’s health, including those with dementia, has also been documented.”

According to Doctor Schnitker, QUT-led research had previously shown that Australian residential aged care facilities were well prepared for natural disasters. However far less effort had been expended on responding to the special challenges faced by people with dementia and their carers living in the community.

This new guide is to be used in conjunction with the Red Cross RediPlan tool and new Get Prepared App.

“Planning ahead is critical. So that might mean finding out if emergency exits are wheelchair accessible and whether or not an evacuation centre will cater for people with dementia. If that person attends a day care or respite centre, ask what their emergency and evacuation plans are,” Dr Schnitker said.

“The guide has three colour-coded sections with relevant dementia-specific advice covering preparing for a natural disaster, what to do during one – whether you stay at home, evacuate or the person becomes agitated or lost – and tips for the aftermath including returning home and how to access psychological support.”

The guide recommends that carers sign up to the Safety Home Program and MedicAlert programs in case the person with dementia goes missing or needs urgent medical treatment during a natural disaster.

“A current photo, an identify bracelet and access to health records can save lives,” she said.

“The Carer Ready Guide details all the essential needs of the individual in question. It’s a ‘live’ document that can be updated as required and shared with a support network including their doctor and pharmacist.

“It also provides advice on how to put together an emergency kit and the value of including such comforting and calming items as books, music, puzzles and photos.”

Red Cross State Manager for Emergency Services, Collin Sivalingum, said natural disasters and other emergencies affect one in three Australians during their lifetime.

“Emergencies can be distressing and complex and it can take a long time to recover. Some people never recover. Red Cross knows that the more prepared you are the less stressful they become. We work with all Australians to help them prepare. In particular we support the most vulnerable as they are often the ones that slip through the cracks and suffer most after an emergency. Carers of people with dementia are in this group.

“For those who are not as mobile or able to get help, a free app is now available so people can take practical steps to protect themselves, the people they love and the things they value the most. It’s available at”

New Zealand is also a high-risk country for natural disasters. In 2017, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery – funded by the World Bank the EU and others – looked at the risks posed by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and more across the world. New Zealand as a whole is ranked high-risk for almost every possible catastrophe, except extreme heat and water scarcity.

The Preparing for a Natural Disaster Guide to using RediPlan for Carers of People with Dementia guide can be accessed online.

QUT is part of a national collaborative group of five major Australian universities that form the ATN (Australian Technology Network of Universities).

Image: Photo by Tomas Bankauskas on Unsplash