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Natural disasters and people living with dementia

by Dr Meredith Gresham, Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA)

Our thoughts are with people on the east coast of Australia affected by the recent storms and flooding, and especially those people affected who are living with dementia and their families. For some, the flood peak has passed and the thankless task of cleaning up is just commencing.

It can be especially challenging for people living with dementia to cope with, and mentally process, the devastation. For carers, coping with the crisis and maintaining the care and support role can be overwhelming.

After a major flood in the US, researchers* reported carers of people living with dementia saying they “knew how to be a carer” and they knew basically “how to manage in a disaster” (most had experienced flood before) but they felt ill-equipped to manage the two roles together.

Most carers reported the person they support found managing an evacuation very distressing, and that distress negatively affecting other people. For people with dementia living alone, or those supported by family who lived at a distance, communication was difficult, or became impossible as telecommunications were cut off.

Managing care and support in a natural disaster

Carers described preparedness as key. The current flood situation in Queensland and NSW means the time to prepare has passed, but there are things you can still do.

  • Be prepared to disclose that you, or the person you support, has dementia so people will understand that you may need additional help.
  • Ask for what you need, such as sitting in a quieter area. Evacuation centres can be noisy and chaotic.
  • The person with dementia and the carer should carry each other’s contact details and any emergency medical instructions. This is especially important if you are separated.
  • Remaining calm is essential, but easier said than done. Turn off blanket media coverage of the disaster. Use music to calm and distract. Headphones and a playlist of familiar music can help.
  • Write a recovery plan. In a crisis it can be hard to think straight but writing down what needs to be done after the crisis may help. A plan will help you feel more in control. For example, if your home has been inundated, you will need:
    • temporary accommodation;
    • help to inspect safety of your home before going inside;
    • help clean out your house;
    • help to apply for disaster relief payments and insurance claims.
  • When family or friends offer help, it can also be overwhelming. Use your recovery plan to allocate jobs to trusted family and friends.
  • Dementia will affect a person’s ability to process a crisis. If someone else is providing support for the person you care for, write down basic information about their routine, things they enjoy and take comfort from.

What family and friends can do

 If you are a friend or family member not affected by flood there are things you can do to help:

  • Listen and be patient. Talking about the crisis helps people process the trauma. Be aware that some people who experienced trauma will talk about it in their own time.
  • Where possible, spend time with the person with dementia. Listen to their experiences and remain positive.
  • Help the person with dementia resume as normal as possible routine as soon as possible. If your family member has been evacuated they may want to get home quickly, but can only do so when State Emergency Services have given an ‘All Clear’.
  • Work with your family member to develop a flood recovery plan and allocate jobs to trusted family members, friends or contractors.
  • Help with documentation. Take photos and keep records of damaged goods and discarded items as this can be helpful for insurance claims. Keep receipts for new items and cleaning supplies.
  • Be aware of fraud. Disasters bring out the best in people, but also sometimes the worst. Some people with dementia may be very trusting. Be on hand or on the phone to support decisions, e.g. do not pay in full in advance for any repair work, ensure that your family member does not give our personal information or back account details. Help watch out for donation scams.
  • Psychological trauma from disasters is common. For some, it may remain long after the disaster. Supportive counselling for the person with dementia and carer may be helpful. For support call the National Dementia Helpline counselling service on 1800 100 500.
  • Dementia Support Australia (1800 699 799) provide advice and assistance for the person with dementia who has psychological or behavioural support needs.
  • Your GP can also help to arrange a Mental Health Care Plan with subsidised visits to a psychologist or social worker.

For more information on this website, visit the article: 5.13 Plan for emergencies.

*Gibson, A., Walsh, J., Brown, L.M. (2018) A perfect storm: Challenges encountered by family caregivers of persons with Alzheimer’s disease during natural disasters. Journal of  Gerontological Social Work. 61 (7) 775-789.


Helpful web-based resources


Useful phone numbers

  • SES assistance for emergency situations: 132 500
  • NSW Disaster Relief via Service NSW: 13 77 88
  • Queensland Community Recovery hotline: 1800 173 349