By Kathleen O’Brien/The Star-Ledger
on February 17, 2013 at 6:35 AM, updated February 17, 2013 at 6:40 AM
DENVILLE — Fran Johnson’s house got off light with Sandy — a falling branch dinged her chimney, and she lost power for 10 days.
The real damage proved to be psychological: It left her with a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.
“The storms now are terrible. I toughed out enough of them. At 83, I’m not toughing out any more. I get too nervous and worried,” she said.
Apprehensive about the weather, she moved out of her Rockaway Township house and into Saint Francis retirement home in Denville for the winter.
While everyone whose home was badly damaged by Sandy had to come up with temporary living arrangements, for some seniors, the change may be permanent. Assisted-living and independent-care facilities report a torrent of inquiries from seniors and their adult children since the storm.
“It was an eye-opener for families,” said Liz Fandel of Fellowship Village’s Helping Hands, a Basking Ridge agency that provides home health care. “People were ‘independent’ as long as things were okay, things were smooth. They were only independent so long as nothing occurred.”
For the oldest generation, Sandy was “the tipping point,” said D. Jane Mahoney, director of Ocean County’s Office of Senior Services. For some, the storm will turn out to be the end of an era.
“I’ve had enough of the beach; I’ve had enough of the storms,” said 85-year-old Anthony Giordano, who sought temporary refuge at the Seabrook retirement community in Tinton Falls after the first floor of his Lavallette house was flooded.
A daughter is overseeing its repair, but Giordano and his wife have decided to stay at Seabrook for good. “Before the storm, I didn’t think I was ready for that place,” he said. “But I’m here now and I’m going to stay.”
Since the storm, demand for housing for dementia patients has soared so much the Care One assisted-living center in Parsippany is building an addition to double its number of “memory care” beds.
Care One’s regional director, Darren Seise, said he doubts the storm actually worsened anyone’s condition. Instead, he suspects the elaborate routines families had in place to help Mom or Dad fell apart under the strain of the statewide emergency. Who could make that daily call when cell phones were out? What neighbor would check in next door when so many had decamped to hotels? Who could swing by to fill a parent’s weekly pill box when waiting in line for gas took so long?
“All I know is since that time, we’ve been full — with a waiting list,” Seise said.
Some seniors even showed up at local hospitals after the storm simply because they didn’t know where else to go, he said.
“They were told, ‘We can’t admit you. There’s nothing medically wrong that would warrant that,’ ” he said. Several were referred to Care One, where they stayed temporarily.
SOME STAYING PUT
Of course, not all seniors responded to the crisis with an urge to move. Eydie Shapiro, with Comfort Keepers in Secaucus, provider of home aides to seniors, said most of her clients pooh-poohed her concern about their ability to endure the storm’s aftermath. Even those who were stuck in Jersey City high-rises without power refused to relocate.
“They said, ‘Hey, I lived through the Depression. This is nothing. There’s only one way I’m going out of here, and that’s in a pine box,’ ” she recounted.
However, the Sandy-prompted flight to more secure housing is a statewide phenomenon, with dozens of elder-care facilities confirming a flood of inquiries in the wake of the storm.
For some families, Sandy provided a harsh reality check for both the elder generation and their adult children, who may live far away. Carol Katz of Adult Care Advisors in Morganville said the crisis allowed both sides to have a more open conversation than the usual generational tug-of-war of safety versus independence.
“It allowed the senior to say, ‘In an emergency, I’m not okay. I’m scared to death. I’m all alone. I don’t have anyone to count on — my neighbors have all disappeared,’ ” she said. An out-of-state daughter who previously resisted the suggestion her mother needed to be in a skilled nursing facility saw it made a big difference when her mom went to one temporarily after Sandy.
“She fought us tooth and nail, saying, how can you put her in a nursing home? But the parent ended up wanting to stay there. You have to think: She’s not the Mom you remember five years ago,’ ” Katz said.
“For my parents, I actually think Sandy was a blessing in disguise,” said Giordano’s son Tom, who lives in Michigan. His mother had had a second heart surgery last spring, and the family felt she needed a more structured living arrangement. But she loved her view of the ocean and balked at moving.
“My mom’s strong-willed,” said her son. “We really couldn’t force her.” His parents had talked of moving to Seabrook eventually — two of his aunts were already living there — but Sandy turned “eventually” into “now.”
The storm’s impact on elderly living was hardly limited to the Shore towns where homes were extensively damaged. The statewide power and phone outages were burdensome to everyone, but to the elderly, they were downright dangerous. “Accidents happen without power,” said Fandel, of the Helping Hands agency.
It’s hard to distinguish one pill from another in the dark; hard to find one’s way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And the cold hits harder with age. Of the 39 deaths attributable to Sandy, more than half were of people above the age of 61.
“For us, it’s a hassle,” Seise said of the long power outages. “For them, it’s a serious safety issue.”
‘WORST STORM EVER’
Along with the practical issues revealed by Sandy came an uneasiness about today’s weather. While it’s a standard joke that the elderly always remember the weather being worse when they were children — the snow drifts deeper, etc. — this latest spate of freakish storms has turned that joke upside down.
“We’ve had weather like we’ve never had before,” said Fran Johnson, the woman who moved out of her house for the winter. “I owned my house in Lavallette for 41 years, and this was the worst storm ever,” said Giordano.
Instead of feeling a sense of achievement that they weathered a once-in-a-lifetime event, there is instead a dread of the next one. “The ‘storm of the century’ tends to be an annual event now,” said Seise.
Johnson, a widow, could’ve stayed in her home once the power returned, but she no longer wants to. “If I lose my electricity, I lose everything. I can’t even get the garage door open to get the car,” she said. If she’d been living there during the recent blizzard, she said she’d be “frantic with worry.” By contrast, the staff at Saint Francis shoveled out her car and cleared its windshield, leaving it all ready if she wanted to do errands.
She likes it so much — the food’s great — she’s pretty sure she’ll renew her three-month rental. “This has been too much,” she says of the region’s streak of disruptive storms. “Something has been telling me it’s time.”