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The caregiver"s emergency plan
By Vicki Rackner, M.D.
Caregiving is hard work. If you're a caregiver for elderly parents, particularly if they live far away, here are a few tips for developing a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan.
Assure safety. Home accidents and health crises are the most likely emergencies for the elderly. The best strategy is prevention. For those living at home:
? Eliminate hazards that may cause tripping and falling
? Set the thermostat of your home water heater at or below 120 degrees to prevent scalding
? Keep a working flashlight and phone within easy reach of the bed
? Ensure that smoke alarms and fire detectors are working
? Make sure that your loved ones enjoy optimal health and take medications as prescribed
When choosing an assisted living facility, ask how staff members protect the safety of residents. Once you have made a choice, develop a personal relationship with the people who will care for your precious family members. These hardworking employees perform an important job with little pay and very little thanks. Make sure to express your gratitude.
Plan for an emergency whether your elderly relatives live in their own homes, in your home or an assisted living facility:
? Stock an emergency kit that addresses the specific needs of your loved one. Pack special foods, medication, extra eyeglasses, a first aid kit and batteries for medical devices such as hearing aids. Remember a hat, gloves and a whistle. Finally, slip in a photograph and a reassuring note, a trick I learned when my son started preschool.
? Keep a card in your wallet that summarizes important health information of those under your care (doctors' telephone numbers, a medication list and allergies, pharmacy numbers and a thumbnail medical history).
? Talk with your parents and ask them what they would want in the event of an emergency. The best time to have this talk is today. Say, ``Mom and Dad, if a natural disaster like Katrina hits, what would you want me to do?'' Be sure to address end-of-life questions.
? Know the location of important documents.
? Partner with nursing home/assisted living staff. Call and say, ``We're thinking about emergencies. What is your plan if some natural disaster strikes? How can I best support you and my parent should something like that happen and I can't get there?'' Evacuation is tricky business for the elderly. Those with dementia rely on routine and clues from the environment to keep themselves oriented. You may have seen an elderly relative in the hospital decompensate at night simply because he has been plucked from familiar surroundings.
? Understand that in an emergency, choices about emergency management are made on a case-by-case basis. As with any other medical choice, risks are weighed against benefits.
After an emergency, watch out for signs of depression in the elderly. Stressful life events can trigger it, no matter what age a person is, but depression in the elderly can be challenging to diagnose. It can appear as aches and pains that are often attributed to ``normal aging'' or physical ailments. Nationwide, the elderly have the highest suicide rate of any age group. The good news is that depression is treatable.
Rest with greater ease by developing an emergency preparedness plan that includes all of those for whom you care.
Vicki Rackner, M.D., is a surgeon who left the operating room to help people get the health care they want, need and deserve. She can be reached at DrRackner@medicalbridges.com or 425-451-3777.