Aiding the elderly: Churches again shelter nursing home evacuees

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- John Tieperman, executive director of Chateau de Notre Dame nursing home in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was about 15 minutes away from going home Aug. 26 to enjoy his weekend when he got an ominous call from his wife.

"Have you seen the TV?" she asked. "You'd better turn it on."

With little warning, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center radically changed the projected landfall of Hurricane Katrina westward from the Florida panhandle to the southeast Louisiana coast.

"I grabbed my staff and we were there until 8 o'clock planning what might happen," Tieperman said.

What happened the next day was a meticulously choreographed evacuation of about 300 seniors -- many in extremely fragile health -- to temporary shelters at St. George and St. Thomas More churches in Baton Rouge.

The 79-mile trip is so taxing that some residents have been known to die in transit. But there was little choice because there is no way to care for elderly residents in an area without electricity or water.

Tieperman said the same two parishes greeted the residents last year during the evacuation from Hurricane Ivan. Each parish was even better prepared this year, marshaling several hundred volunteers, including teens and medical personnel, to help keep the residents safe, fed, bathed and entertained during the ordeal. On Aug. 31, all the residents were shifted once again to more permanent nursing facilities in southeast Louisiana.

"The kids were just overwhelming," Tieperman said, referring to the teens who played games and simply talked to the residents. "There were two and three kids around every resident, smiling and talking to them. One of the residents liked it so much last year that she said she'd been to a resort."

The work is backbreaking and unglamorous. Barbara Chenevert, liturgy coordinator at St. George, said parishioners helped clean residents' diapers and took their clothes home to wash and dry them. The toughest part was unloading and loading the residents onto the buses because some were in intense pain.

"St. George has been blessed with beautiful families, and everyone wants to share their talents for the common good," Chenevert said. "This trip has been tremendously stressful for the residents and also for the staff members who came with them. The staff members don't even know where their family members are back in New Orleans. Some of them know their homes were destroyed, but they kept going."

The St. George gym resembled a large hospital ward. Some of the residents slept on foam mattresses, and some remained in their hospital beds while attached to oxygen masks and feeding tubes.

Shelley McClanahan, a registered nurse with Chateau, said she was amazed at the warm greetings her staff received, especially the unexpected massages that were offered to the caregivers.

"It's overwhelming to see their love and concern," she said. "They had such a willingness to do anything they were asked to do."

One of the staff nursing assistants made the trip and left her 9-month-old daughter back home in New Orleans with her sister. As of Sept. 1, she had not heard how her sister and daughter fared during the storm. But the same nursing assistant elicited tears when she sang a gospel song to conclude a prayer service.

"She knew her home was probably gone, but she didn't know anything about her baby," McClanahan said.

Even McClanahan had reason for anxiety. She had no clue as to the whereabouts of her husband, Ray, who lived in a flooded area of New Orleans. But just as she was ready to leave the gym, she turned to see her husband walking through the gym door, and the two embraced.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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