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Emergencies Strike Without Warning — So Single Seniors Need Special Preparation and Planning

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Now that October is half gone, fall is definitely in the air, which can only mean one thing: winter weather will be here soon. That means “winter emergency season” isn’t far off!  While an emergency can happen just about any time and any place, the changing of seasons is a good time to remind our AgingOptions Blog readers about the need for preparedness. You may never have been a Boy Scout, but there’s nothing wrong with the motto, “Be prepared.”

Still, being prepared for emergencies isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially for the millions of aging Americans who live alone, without family support. Examples abound: we know of one senior who lost his balance getting out of bed and ended up stuck for hours, wedged between the bed and the wall, because he hadn’t taken the simple precaution of having his phone within reach. Finally a concerned neighbor came to his rescue.

This week we came across this article from NextAvenue in which reporter Carol Marak provides some helpful – and potentially life-saving – tips for single seniors on how to prepare for a wide range of emergencies, from medical mishaps to power outages to weather-related crises. The NextAvenue piece is long, so we’ve abbreviated some of Marak’s points. We suggest you take a look at the article for yourself, and then take some of the steps she suggests before the next emergency hits close to home.

“You’re Heading for Rehab – Who Should We Call?”

Marak begins the NextAvenue article with the story of a healthy, independent senior he calls Beth, who lives alone – quite happily – and enjoys solitary activities, especially riding her bike for long stretches. One day, the cool weather motivated Beth to go for a bike ride. “But this ride was different,” Marak writes. 

She continues, “As [Beth] glided down the driveway, and turned onto a busy street, nothing could have prepared her for what was about to happen.  A few miles away from home, from nowhere, an eighteen-wheeler skirted a little too close, blowing Beth off balance. Stunned, she jerked the bike a bit too hard which sent her hurling over the handlebars, crashing on her hip. She stayed there until the ambulance showed up.”

Hours later, sitting stunned and hurting in the Emergency Room, she felt speechless when an ER doctor gave her the diagnosis and asked her the chilling question: “You’ve got a broken hip, and you’ll be in a rehab facility awhile. Who do you want us to call?”

Who is Your “I.C.E. Contact”?

Many solo seniors are like Beth, who – because she never anticipated a health emergency – was completely unprepared when faced with one. In his article, Marak suggests that having a trusted friend, family member, or professional to call or text as an emergency contact should be the top priority for everyone, but especially older adults who live alone. This designation on important documents and medical records is I.C.E.: In Case of Emergency contact.

“In 2019,” Marak writes, “the Institute of Healthcare Policy and Innovation claimed 22 percent of the 50 to 80 age group had an emergency or disaster such as a power outage lasting more than a day, severe weather, evacuation or lockdown, while 73 percent reported experiencing at least one such event during their lifetime.”

Believing you’re going to experience a crisis is one thing, and more than half of older adults say they anticipate facing an emergency. It’s another thing to admit that you might need help, however, something most older adults have trouble with. But if you live alone, this preparation and willingness to rely on others is critical.

Build a Network of Support for Emergencies

Marak suggests creating your own support group of people “for social interactions and relationships, as well as a group that will look out for one another.”

Caryn Isaacs, a patient advocate in New York, agrees, and she gives this advice: “When selecting people to care for you in time of need, pick those who know your preferences, and who are strong enough to lift things like shopping bags and even walkers. It’s vital they know how to access transportation and other services. It’s better if they’re active listeners and efficient note takers. And you must trust them.”

Experts agree: no one truly lives “alone.” We’ll all surrounded by people who can help if asked. All that’s required is the willingness and commitment to build that support system before an emergency occurs.

Marak suggests the following ways to build such community:

  • Make a list of activities and groups that give the opportunities to engage with people – these might be political, religious, sports, social or hobbies
  • Visit local senior centers, public libraries and volunteer to enlarge your social network
  • Get to know your neighbors
  • Teach a hobby and a skill that you excel in at the local community college or lifelong learning institute
  • Call the Area Agency on Aging for a list of active adults’ groups
  • Contact a local affiliate of the National Council on Aging (you’ll find a database here of NCOA active aging programs)

When we think of potential emergencies which require planning, it helps to be thorough.  In her NextAvenue article, Marak lists the following emergencies that you and your support system should prepare for. This might be a helpful list for an adult child to review with an aging parent who lives many miles away and who are on their own.

Power Outages

This most basic of emergencies can turn into a scary proposition when they last longer than expected, especially in winter. “For a power outage lasting over 24 hours, two in three older adults felt very confident that they were prepared, 27 percent were somewhat confident, and only 4 percent were not confident at all, according to the Institute of Healthcare Policy and Innovation,” Marak writes.  We think those “very confident” seniors are overly optimistic.

In an extended power outage, it’s crucial to know where city-sponsored shelters are—and how to get there—in case of lost power or freak snowstorms. Marak suggests, “Visit a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) to receive guidance or information. Additionally, make sure to know when to evacuate an area.”

An ideal power outage emergency kit should include:

Medical Emergencies

A medical emergency can range from a sliced finger while preparing food to a broken hip, like Beth from the start of the article. When considering preparing for such emergencies, Nancy Ruffner, a patient advocate in North Carolina, encourages third-person thinking: If you land in the hospital, who could step in and do what needs to be done?

“When making a plan, remove the emotions and focus on the tasks — who could get mail/find or assemble bills and pay them? Who will watch your home; water plants, check for security, turn lights off and on, move things around outside to create the appearance of someone there?” says Ruffner. “If you have a pet, who will care for it?”

General Emergencies

For the list-minded among our readers, Marak provides the following list of things that you should have handy, packed, and ready in case of any kind of emergency: “Have a hospital go-to bag filled and ready to grab. Include an I.C.E. list (in case of emergency contact list) of medications and medical conditions, a photocopy of a health insurance card, Medicare card (black out the last four digits of the Social Security number,) toiletries, pen and notebook, puzzle books, lip balm, hand sanitizer, personal grooming items, a copy of the Healthcare Power of Attorney documents. Identify a key contact person. Make an extra copy of the contents of each folder and leave it with a friend or relative at home.”

She adds, “Create a spreadsheet listing your support contacts and information such as who will look after your home, pet, vehicle, food in the refrigerator, et cetera. Also list who will check on you in the hospital, gather necessities and bring them to you.”

Plus, it’s best to have an up-to-date first aid kit and emergency supply kit on hand at all times. Additionally, know how to recognize a medical emergency.

Marak goes into deeper detail about weather-related emergencies in her article, and we highly recommend giving it a read if you are at risk for cold weather emergencies of any kind, as well as extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods.

Be Wary of Disaster Related Scams

We’ve written many times before on the AgingOptions Blog about scammers. You might be surprised (or perhaps not) to learn that criminals target disaster and emergency victims, too.

Unfortunately, as the Federal Trade Commission warns, disasters – especially weather-related ones – bring out a host of emergency-related scammers. Some of these are referred to as “clean-up and repair scams” where a bogus contractor promises to fix your damaged roof or clean up your broken tree limbs with just a 50 percent deposit in advance. Often that’s the last you’ll see of them.

The solution is to check identification carefully and demand proof of a valid license and adequate insurance. Before you hire a contractor – especially in an emergency, but actually at any time – check their references. It’s always wise to ask friends for referrals. Make certain the contractor puts all promises in writing, and make certain you understand what you’re signing. Never pay cash or full payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied.

Solo seniors are especially vulnerable to this type of scam. Marak concludes: “Be alert, stay safe, and prepare for emergencies. Do it now before you’re taken by surprise and build a support team of nearby peers and friends.”

Additional Emergency Resources for Solo Agers

We have included the following links from Marak’s article, which provide a wealth of essential information for older adults living alone:

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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