- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

CASSELTON, N.D. (AP) - Sitting on a cot in a Sunday school-turned-dorm for flood evacuees, 85-year-old Ray Kotchian longed for the luxuries of home: His big-screen TV, his private apartment and, most of all, his easy chair.

“They’re doing the best they can, but I sure miss that La-Z-Boy,” Kotchian said.

The retired farmer is among 2,000 elderly and disabled people moved from Fargo when a wall of water began threatening the city. While many residents stayed behind to help fight the Red River, those in nursing homes were among the first to go, urged out by city officials worried about moving them quickly if sandbag dikes failed and the town flooded.

While their evacuation was expected to be brief, with a gradual return by next week, the displacement was a complicated event and a particular concern for a fragile population.

Bethany Retirement Living, one of North Dakota’s largest retirement homes, moved all 375 of its residents Friday by plane, bus or ambulance, depending on the distance and the residents’ conditions. Bethany officials planned to start bringing residents back to the facility Thursday.

“It was a major undertaking, like moving an army,” Bethany spokesman Grant Richardson said of the evacuation. “For many of these people, it was their first airplane ride.”

About 100, including Kotchian, ended up at St. Leo’s Church in Casselton, about 20 miles west of Fargo. Another 100 residents went with family, while the remainder were sent to about a dozen other nursing homes throughout North Dakota and South Dakota.

Most seemed to be taking the move in stride, keeping busy with bingo and card games while staff members who came with them tried to keep their routine as normal as possible.

Still, the differences were hard to ignore. Cots replaced comfortable beds, and makeshift men’s and women’s dorms left little privacy for residents used to their own rooms. Many grabbed only an overnight bag and a pillow as they hustled from the nursing home.

That kind of displacement would be difficult for anyone, but it’s of particular concern in an elderly population.

“Psychologically it’s tough _ as it would be for any age group _ but for older individuals, who may have multiple (health) problems and who often have been in their homes for many years, it’s a little bit more disruptive because of that sense of loss of stability and routine,” said Robin Mermelstein, a University of Illinois at Chicago psychology professor.

Dr. Malaz Boustani, a researcher at Indiana University’s Healthy Aging Brain Center, said the stress of being uprooted can lead to depression and mental confusion for many older adults who are weakened by age or illness.

But the decision not to move the elderly can result in dire situations, as Louisiana officials learned during Hurricane Katrina. The state indicted the owners of one flooded nursing home where 35 people died, arguing that they should have evacuated. A jury acquitted them.

Evacuations can pose their own dangers, however. A month after Hurricane Katrina, 23 nursing home residents died when their bus caught fire in the massive exodus before Hurricane Rita.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who decided against a citywide evacuation, supported getting nursing home residents out of town _ including his own mother.

Gladys Walaker was transferred from Fargo to the Maple Manor Care Center in Langdon, about 200 miles northwest near the Canadian border. She said the experience was “very scary at first, but I’m getting used to it.” She has made new friends and gets regular check-ins from her son.

“I’m proud of him and the job he’s done,” said Walaker, who would not give her age. “He’s telling me to hang in there.”

At St. Leo’s Church, the displaced seniors stay 8 to 10 in a room. Residents with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are housed on a different floor.

Adult diapers, fruit juice and gowns are stacked on folding tables in the church’s hallways. Several residents, most of whom use walkers, stop by and load up, bringing the items back to their rooms.

Eilene Nelson, 102, has a little trouble getting off her cot, but she doesn’t complain about it. Nelson remembers tougher times during the Depression, when her husband lost nearly everything.

“I’m pretty tough. I’ve survived so far, and I’ll survive this, too,” she said. “This is history, and we’re all trying to care for each other the best we can,” she said.

Richardson said some seniors could start going home on Thursday, with the goal of all being back by next week. The return would be spread over days instead of just a few hours, as the evacuation was. That will mean “a huge difference in the level of chaos,” he said.

“While these are extraordinary circumstances, it’s not like these people haven’t been through difficult times before,” he said. “These are people who lived during the Depression and the dirty ‘30s, and most of the men fought in World War II, and the women did their part during the war.

“They’ve lived a long and full life and they’ve bumped into things before and this is another bump in the road for them,” Richardson said.

____

Associated Press Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner contributed to this report from Chicago.

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