Senior care and emergency preparedness

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During an emergency or crisis – natural or man-made – hospital emergency departments rapidly fill up with seniors. Floods, fires, power outages, pandemics, not to mention hot humid summers with extreme heat waves, are all potentially dangerous scenarios for seniors. They are especially dangerous if the senior lives alone.

“We can never do enough when it comes to preparing seniors and their families for emergencies or catastrophes,” says Sharon Galway of Home Instead Senior Care. “Extra consideration is required for those who live alone or in high-rises and who may be confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed. Much attention has been given to the prevention of falls, and while that’s very important, we often lose sight of having emergency plans. If people have these plans in place, you may prevent a trip to the hospital.”

Galway is a registered nurse who has extensive experience working with seniors. A former consultant on seniors’ issues for York Region, the City of Toronto, and the Ontario Government’s Seniors Secretariat, she runs Home Instead Senior Care in North York, Ontario. Home Instead Senior Care provides personal care services for seniors in their homes or in care facilities across Canada.

“Seniors who live alone must have a lifeline in case of emergency,” Galway says. “This means having emergency numbers visible by the phone, making sure that fire alarms and smoke detectors work, and having an emergency kit. Most people don’t have one and only think about it after the fact. We always conduct a home-safety check for our new clients and this is very helpful.”

Of course, it’s critical during emergencies that agencies work together. This includes police and fire departments, Emergency Management Services (EMS), public health units, paramedics, and hospitals. In Ontario, the Regional Geriatric Program, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, helps make this happen. It supports a network of 28 hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area. The idea is that with co-ordinated care and community support, seniors can live in their own homes safely and avoid hospitalization. That includes during a crisis or emergency situation.

Today many hospitals have Geriatric Emergency nurses stationed in Emergency departments. Among other things, GEM nurses comprehensively assess seniors which can help reduce repeat visits to hospital, many of which are unnecessary. GEM nurses may also recommend that a family enlist the services of private care agencies. In Alberta, some Emergency Department nurses have the College & Association of Registered Nurses of Albert (CARNA) Geriatric Certification, which is a supplementary certification.

“Family caregivers play a critical role,” says Sharon Galway. “But seniors who have no family locally can also be assisted by caregivers from an organization like ours. The most important consideration is to put a plan in place, assess what the senior needs in the event of a disaster, and implement the plan.”

Home Instead Senior Care has devised a 10-point check list to help seniors prepare for disasters:

1. Contact the local emergency management office to learn about the most likely natural disasters to strike your area.

2. Do a personal assessment. Seniors should know what they can or can’t do before, during and after a disaster. Make a list of those needs and the resources that can meet them.

3. Schedule a family meeting to assess your needs in an emergency and develop a plan of action. Include in your plan neighbours, friends, relatives and professional caregivers who could help.

4. Assemble a portable disaster kit with essential supplies, as well as photocopies of key identification, a health card, and legal documents. The kit should have three days of non-perishable food and water, plus an additional four days of food and water readily accessible at home.

5. Label every piece of equipment or personal item in your kit.

6. Have at least two escape routes – one out of the home in case of fire when you must get out quickly, and one out of the area in case you must evacuate the local community. Designate a place to meet other relatives or key support network people outside the house.

7. Know when to go or to stay, and how to make the decision. In the case of evacuation, older adults should go sooner rather than later.

8. Know where to get information during an emergency, either through TV or radio. Have a battery-operated radio on hand. Special alarms are available for people with medical conditions, such as a strobe alarm for the hearing-impaired.

9. Make a list of key phone numbers that includes people on your support network, as well as doctors and other health-care professionals.

10. Call a professional caregiver if you need help.