Having an emergency plan critical for safety and health of seniors
In the case of a health crisis involving a senior, some light preparation can mean the difference between continued healthy living, and serious injury or even death.Posted — Updated
The common advice for a crisis is to remain calm and try to think clearly. That's not always possible, but prior planning and preparation – much like with fire drills or tornado drills – can help you to stay focused and make better decisions during an emergency situation.
But what if the crisis is a health crisis that involves a senior or a senior couple who lives alone? It's a situation that no one likes to think about, but some light preparation can mean the difference between continued healthy living, and serious injury or even death.
"What constitutes a crisis?" asked Meike Wiest, an aging life care professional and Triangle area president of LifeLinks. "What is normal? What can I expect? What would require emergency response?"
The answers to these questions are personal and will vary for each individual, but one way to charter the best course of action is to assess the situation and think about its various components going forward. Knowledge is power, so discuss your existing health concerns and potential symptoms with your doctor and ask when a 911 call may be warranted.
Knowing your own health situation is imperative to knowing what constitutes an emergency.
For true emergencies, 911 should always be the first call. And if something is happening medically but you are not sure if it constitutes an emergency, 911 is still the best option. Dispatchers are trained to determine what is and is not an emergency.
One thing that everyone should have prepared – regardless of age – is a list printed out of medications, diagnoses, medical providers and important individuals to contact. This information is usually kept in a distinguishable folder in a place that family members and emergency responders have easy access to. This will help EMS technicians assess the situation.
"We encourage people to – whether at home or a facility – have all these documents in a clear foil cover and post it on the inside of the front door," Wiest said. "EMS first responders are trained to check there. Have all that posted on the inside of your door."
This is vital information that can be used by the first responders and the hospital to ensure you receive the best care possible.
Prepping your critical information for the first responders is one thing; but as the crisis unfolds it is also important to know who has general power of attorney and health care power of attorney if the senior is incapacitated or unable to make decisions for themselves. These are not necessarily separate individuals, but they are important to legally designate.
"Seniors should certainly put together a health care power of attorney and a general power of attorney," said Kevin Huston, elder law and estate planning attorney and president of Huston Law Firm.
He explained, "The health care power of attorney covers health care decisions that may arise. The general power of attorney is generally a separate document that covers financial, personal and business decisions of all kinds."
Whoever is designated should be a trusted family member or friend who knows the wishes of the incapacitated individual. Copies of these designations should be on hand at home, and can be filed at the clerk of courts office and the register of deeds office. These designations are so important that they are recommended for everyone, not just seniors.
"We encourage everyone over the age of 21 to get [a] health care power of attorney," Wiest said. "This is not an aging matter, anyone can be incapacitated. Naming someone should be a first step."
It is also important the designated individual is aware of what your wishes are. It might seem nice to grant a grandchild you are close with medical power of attorney, but can you trust that grandchild with making tough, potentially life-ending decisions?
"It's only fair to give them guidelines so they are prepared for that role," Wiest said. "Having these conversations is important. Nobody likes to have them, but if you want to be prepared for a crisis, those discussions are important sooner rather than later."
But what happens after the immediate crisis passes?
Is the senior still capable of living independently? For example, if the crisis was a fall, was it because there are too many steps at home and now that home is too dangerous to remain in? Are there new, ongoing medical concerns that can not be addressed at home?
The saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" may be cliché, but in this case, it could prevent a lot of personal and financial stresses.
"While the family and the older adult may have planned well for the immediate crisis, they often haven't given thought as to how that crisis will impact the older adult's living situation as time passes," said Mark Tribbett, president and co-founder of Summit Senior Solutions. "Just a little pre-thought can help to minimize heat-of-the-moment decisions that can result in relationship, care or financial mistakes from relocating to a facility that isn't a good fit."
Tribbett recommends working with a certified senior advisor in assessing needs and desires, as well as in touring independent or assisted living communities ahead of time to find an optimal fit should a higher level of care than what can be provided at home is ever required.
Touring these communities ahead of time to find an appropriate fit means the older adult and their family will be more comfortable and it will not feel like the senior is being "tossed" into a home after an incident.
Identifying potential financial impacts also means the burden of payment will not fall on unsuspecting seniors or family members, and will help to avoid requiring another change in the living situation due to funds running out.
Having these tough conversations ahead of time may cause some personal discomfort, but that is infinitely better than rushing into a bad situation and watching a loved one suffer emotionally, physically or financially due to a lack of planning. Also, realizing that the effect of a crisis goes beyond just the immediate event will mitigate stressors and improve the continued quality of life for the senior and their families into the future.
Just a little planning can bring peace of mind to everyone.
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