When I inquired about plans for hurricane season, the director at my mother’s Florida assisted living center was unconcerned. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We’ve been through several big ones and never had any damage or lost power.” In hindsight, I should have countered with “past performance is no guarantee of future results” and asked a lot more questions.
Given recent horrific incidents, including the death of eight residents after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to a Florida nursing home in September 2017, a top concern for anyone choosing or re-evaluating a facility should be emergency preparedness. A blithe “don’t worry about it” may be a warning sign that the director is not comfortable sharing key details.
Ask about generator capacity
While most facilities have some type of emergency preparedness, “ask whether their plan was developed in coordination with, and/or approved by, someone with expertise in this area,” advises Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care.
Probe whether the facility has a stockpile of supplies and medications on hand and adequate generator capacity to run all systems, including air conditioning, heat, medical machines, and elevators if there’s a loss of power. Other key issues, Smetanka says, include:
- How staff members prepare for and respond to emergencies.
- How often the facility participates in disaster planning drills, not just internally, but as part of a community effort.
- How the facility makes sure enough staff members are present to respond to an emergency situation.
Pose these questions
Disaster response plans are only as good as the people implementing them. In some nursing home incidents “there seems to be a failure to really sound the alarm,” says Peggy Flannigan, associate professor of nursing at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. “I have to wonder if the administrator was in over his or her head and just didn’t know where to turn.”
So perhaps the most important thing to do is consider the competence and caring of the facility’s leadership. Can they clearly answer such questions as:
- What if the staff is unable to make it into work?
- Will extra staff be staying in the facility if there’s a flood or hurricane warning?
- Who will be in charge?
- Who will be in touch with residents’ families to let them know what’s going on?
Do your homework
Download AgingCare.com’s Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Planning Checklist. It will provide a complete list of questions to ask about a facility’s readiness for an emergency.
Find information on a facility’s health and fire safety inspections, staffing ratios, quality of resident care, and penalties at Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare tool.
Learn where to file a complaint about a facility. States can vary widely on regulations. And the number of complaints registered against nursing homes varies from state to state, with California, North Carolina, and Texas logging the highest number. Find your state’s website here.
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Ronni Sandroff, an award-winning writer and former health editorial director at Consumer Reports, covers mind, behavior, and culture from Southern Florida.