Diane Sasser, Merrill, Thomas A., Gioe, Cheri M. | 11/18/2005 10:45:55 PM
Many families across the state and across the nation face the stressful situation of houseguests who still can’t go home.
This summer’s hurricanes led many people to offer shelter to family members and friends evacuating from the storms’ paths. But the devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita meant many South Louisiana families still haven’t been able to return to their homes – and some don’t have an idea when that may occur.
Families need to make sure they appropriately deal with the stress brought on by such situations, according to experts with the LSU AgCenter.
"When a crisis occurs, people often turn to others for support," said LSU AgCenter family life specialist Dr. Diane Sasser. "That’s what happened with many Gulf Coast residents who thought they were temporarily moving into the homes of extended family and friends around the time the hurricanes hit.
"But then a lot of them discovered they couldn’t go back home in a few days or even a few weeks. Now, some people have had a house full of family and friends for about 12 weeks, and that’s a long time to have ‘company.’"
Sasser and LSU AgCenter associate Cheri Gioe say the changes brought on by such experiences are complex and vary from household to household. One thing that’s certain, however, is that families have to reallocate some of their resources in order to cope with the situation, they say.
"You have to come up with strategies for coping with the changes," said Gioe, who personally experienced a house overflowing with extended family members for almost two months. "There can be some really good things, like having extra help with the kids and meals and getting to catch up with family and friends, but then, of course, there are some challenges like having so many extra people around all the time.
"How you cope with it depends on what you choose to focus on and the strategies you come up with for handling the situation."
The LSU AgCenter experts say those strategies need to cover such items as understanding, communication, caring for yourself, establishing responsibilities, following routines and autonomy.
"It is important to understand that all members in the household may be experiencing similar feelings, even if they were not affected in the same manner by the disasters," Sasser explains, adding, "Family members must be allowed to grieve their losses, and everyone needs to recognize that the group cares for one another.
"Patience and flexibility definitely will be required for all concerned."
The LSU AgCenter expert also says it’s important to understand that those who have gone through traumatic events can have a variety of reactions including the inability to concentrate, confusion, shortened attention span, temporary memory loss, difficulty making decisions, shock, feeling overwhelmed, depression, numbness, uncertainty of feelings, feeling lost, volatile emotions, suspicion, irritability, arguments with friends and loved ones, withdrawal, changes in appetite and increased alcohol or substance abuse. They may even have such physical symptoms as nausea, dizziness, stomach problems, headaches, poor sleep, fatigue and jumpiness.
Turning to communication, the experts say it’s important to listen to one another, be honest with each other, solicit suggestions from everyone about things to do and to communicate often about what’s going on.
"Talk as a group about how you will handle issues such as increased demands on the household budget, lack of privacy and changes in plans," Gioe says. "Discuss everyone’s role and be sure to ask for help when you need it. You can’t expect other people to anticipate your needs."
Another strategy in caring for yourself and your family is to realize and accept such times are stressful for everyone – including you – and that you can’t do everything for everyone.
"It’s extremely important to take care of yourself by eating right and getting plenty of sleep and exercise," Sasser says. "If you’re so inclined, you also need to keep making time for church or other activities to take care of your spiritual needs."
The experts also say you should try to find ways to provide some privacy and to identify ways to relax.
"Don’t allow yourself to become overloaded physically, financially or emotionally," Gioe advises. "And keep in mind why you are doing this – to help people you care about in their time of need."
Sharing responsibilities among the group is one way to make sure no one bears too much of the extra load, according to the experts.
"Make sure everyone is taking some responsibility for maintaining the household," Sasser says, stressing, "Have a household signup sheet for daily tasks such as taking out the garbage, feeding pets, watering plants, doing the dishes, cooking, laundry and so forth."
You shouldn’t worry about things being done perfectly during such a stressful time, but keeping as much of your normal routine going as possible is important, the experts say.
Having a semblance of autonomy also is vital, they say.
"Maintain a place for privacy, and make some time to be apart from one another," Gioe says. "Because the house is full, plan activities that get you out of the house and away from others for a while."
Although the situation of hosting family and friends may have stretched longer than some imagined it would, the experts say planning ways to cope with the situation can help you meet everyone’s physical and emotional needs.
"Just keep in mind that the situation still is temporary – no matter how long it actually lasts," Sasser says. "It is important to help others when we can, and times such as these give us those opportunities."
For more information on family life and the variety of resources available from the LSU AgCenter, visit www.lsuagcenter.com or contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office.