Seniors forced to flee find temporary homes
Around 5 Monday morning, the emergency alarms at Spring Lake Village, one of Santa Rosa’s largest senior living communities, began blaring: “This is not a drill.”
For the next two hours, as the Tubbs Fire to the north turned the earlymorning skies red, 500 seniors — about 400 living independently, and 100 who depend on medical care — loaded their coats, prescription medications, dogs and cats into cars, or were helped into ambulances, and headed south to an evacuation center at the Sonoma County fairgrounds.
“I had a sense we were surrounded by fire that was gradually closing in,” said Spring Lake resident Tom Frye, 79. “The winds were howling. We could see the flames coming down the mountain . ... It gave me the uneasy feeling we were saying goodbye.”
Whether Frye will have a home to go back to remains to be seen. By Thursday morning, the Tubbs Fire was 10 percent contained, and the Nuns Fire to the south was closing in.
Frye knows he’s one of the lucky ones. He got out in time and, after spending two nights sleeping on cots at the fairgrounds, was among 50 Spring Lake residents relocated to St. Paul’s senior living community in Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood Wednesday. Both facilities are run by Episcopal Senior Communities, a nonprofit that operates several senior homes in the Bay Area. A spokeswoman said that all residents are accounted for and safe.
“We feel very fortunate,” said Frye’s friend and Spring Lake resident Barney Johnson, 85. “We have our lives.”
“And our circle of friends,” added Johnson’s wife, Betty, 85. “That makes a huge difference.”
Spring Lake Village is one of the largest of the 28 senior living facilities have been fully or partially evacuated since the North Bay fires began Sunday, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which is tracking the relocations. Many residents of those homes — who range from people who live independently to those who require assistance to eat, bathe and take medications — have relocated, or are being moved, to San Francisco, the East Bay, Contra Costa County and Sacramento. Many who live independently are staying with friends and family in the area as they wait for word on the homes they left behind.
Johnson and Frye described the evacuation as swift but smooth. The residents do evacuation drills twice a year. But by Wednesday evening, they began remembering items they wish they’d grabbed in time, like family photos, a laptop, a thumb drive.
Across the Bay Area, health organizations and providers of assisted living services are scrambling to soften the landing for displaced seniors, helping to collect medical supplies and dispatch volunteers who can recognize signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease among the thousands of North Bay residents who have made their way to shelters set up in response to the Wine Country fires.
Medical associations are continuing to coordinate volunteer doctors and nurses staffing evacuation centers to monitor people with chronic illnesses or minor medical problems.
The Alzheimer’s Association is sending staff and volunteers to shelters to help workers recognize and care for people with dementia who may wander off or become distressed, particularly after being moved abruptly to unfamiliar locations.
“We’ve heard from a couple shelters they have people who are walking out of the facility that they know are confused,” said Claire Day, chief program officer for the association. “They’ve been trying to bring them back into the shelter.”
The group is also pulling together information to be sent to shelters and nursing homes that are now housing those who fled the fires, about how to enroll people with dementia or Alzheimer’s in the MedicAlert emergency response system, which family members can use to track down a missing loved one.
Typically, those who have MedicAlert will wear an identification bracelet noting their condition and how to contact family members. But Day said that merely having a person’s name and description in the system can help family members locate their loved ones.
“Usually it’s a family member that fills out the application and sends a
picture,” she said. “We’re working on developing a plan to fast-track that, so people can get enrolled quickly.”
Home Care Assistance, a San Francisco company that provides assisted living services for seniors, has been working to get supplies out to assisted living centers that got a sudden influx of new residents such as Belmont Village of Albany, which took in many seniors evacuated from Santa Rosa’s Oakmont area.
Jesse Walters, the company’s director of Bay Area operations, said he has not heard about any severe shortages of supplies — but he was en route to Target on Wednesday afternoon to buy body wash for 100 people. Home Care Assistance is accepting donated diapers, underpads, sanitary wipes, latex medical gloves, walkers, wheelchairs, canes and other supplies for the elderly or infirm who have had to evacuate senior living facilities.
As the Johnsons and Frye sat with friends inside St. Paul’s on Wednesday night, with half-eaten white chocolate chip cookies on paper plates before them, they were grateful that strangers at the Oakland home have opened up their rooms, with some sleeping on couches to offer a new, temporary roommate their bed.
“I’m able to focus, for the first time, on today,” said Betty Johnson. “Tomorrow is unknown.”
Those who are trying to locate a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s can call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour hotline at (800) 272-3900 and be directed to a list of senior living facilities that have been evacuated.
Those who wish to donate diapers and other supplies can visit the website for Home Care Assistance or call (650) 462-9501. Monetary donations for this purpose can also be made to the Red Cross or Episcopal Senior Communities.
Judith Smith (right) assists Rebecca Fuller at St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland, which has taken in dozens of people forced to flee fires in the North Bay. Fuller had to evacuate her home at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa.