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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House Call: Seniors should make plan to stay safe at home during emergencies

An African American male adviser meets with a female elderly client to discuss her financial plan, life insurance, or medicare needs. They are both dressed in casual clothing and meeting at a table in the clients home. It is a very neutral and soft color pallet with whites, grays and blues. Both the client and the adviser are looking down at the documents on the table.  (Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente Washington)
Dr. Jeff Markin For The Spokesman-Review

Snow, storms, power outages, extreme heat, wildfire smoke and other weather events and emergencies can pose extra hazards for older adults. Shoveling snow gets more difficult as we age. A power outage can mean the loss of heating or cooling and the use of medical equipment. A fall in the dark can lead to a serious hip injury.

We should all be ready for severe weather and emergencies, and there are plenty of good sources on overall emergency preparedness. A good place to find the basic tools and an emergency plan is Good communication, planning and a willingness to ask for and give help are key in any emergency situation, regardless of age. But there is some preparation we can do that’s specific to older adults.

Have medications on hand: Anticipate prescription medication needs and get them filled before a storm. You can check if your pharmacy will provide mail order or delivery, which can be helpful in bad weather when seniors may not want to drive or venture out.

Stay warm enough: Older adults can lose body heat faster. It’s better to anticipate loss of home heating than to try to work through it once you’re in a pinch. Identify a backup heat source for power or gas outages, like a wood-burning stove or backup generator, and know how to use it safely. Never use a gas oven or stove to heat indoors. It can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Or stay cool enough: People also have less heat tolerance as they age. Seniors can have a decreased ability to sweat for natural body cooling, an increased risk of heat stroke, and often a decreased sensation of thirst, which means they can be more likely to get dehydrated.

Indoor temperatures above 78 degrees can be too hot for older adults. Make sure air conditioning is in good working condition with clean filters, or have a plan for staying somewhere cool when the temperatures spike. One of my older patients recently mentioned that a neighbor checked on him during the last heat wave and lent him a portable window air conditioner. Nice job, Spokane!

Make sure you’re connected: Speaking of neighbors – have a plan with a friend, neighbor or relative close by to check in with older adults during heat waves, power outages and storms. You can also have an agreement with someone who could take guests in for a few days if needed. Especially for independent-minded people, it can be easier to ask ahead of time than to decide in the moment when it’s enough of an emergency to call in a kindness.

If the power goes out, phones can be out, too. Getting a cellphone and learning how to use it is good preparedness for seniors. Have a portable charging device ready and charged in case the power is out for a while.

Air quality matters: The prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is two to three times higher in people over 60 years old. Older adults can be especially susceptible to the poor air quality we sometimes see with wildfire smoke. Seniors and people with health concerns should limit time outdoors when air quality is poor.

Air filters improve indoor air quality and keep your air conditioning and furnaces running smoothly. There are also portable filters and homemade box fan versions. These should be high-quality HEPA filters designed to screen out allergens and the small particulates found in wildfire smoke and should be changed every four to six months.

Snow and transportation woes: Not being able to shovel after a big snowfall, or even a small one, can mean getting stuck inside for older adults, so have a plan with a snow removal service or a neighbor or friend.

Many seniors are apprehensive about driving in even a mild snow or a rainstorm, with less light and reduced visibility. That can limit access to medications, grocery shopping and social connections. Have a plan for transportation, which can include friends, taxis or ride shares or Spokane’s great public transportation system.

Caregivers can have the same challenges getting around in winter, so get in touch before a storm to arrange for alternate care or transportation for caregivers.

Avoid falls in the dark, wet or snow: Older adults often just aren’t as stable on their feet and falls are a leading cause of hospitalization. In snow, it can be useful to use a four-wheel walker with brakes or a quad-cane to walk to the car, get the mail or venture outside. In a power outage take extra care when moving around with a flashlight. Consider getting a fall detection and medical alert device that can call the medics and get help quickly in an emergency.

Keep checking in: Winter isolation can also mean a higher risk of depression, especially for those who live alone. Older adults can also face financial distress from increased electricity costs from winter heating. It’s a good time to reach out and check in with each other.

There can be special concerns for people with early or mild dementia and their caregivers, particularly in terms of judging when it’s an emergency. One of my patients who has early dementia lost power for four days in the last big windstorm. He and his wife kept reassuring family it was warm enough in their home. It turned out it was only 58 degrees inside, but his mild dementia and strong independence made it harder for him to realize it was time to ask for help. Family checked in again, and the couple ended up staying with relatives and deciding on a plan for future storms.

Use technology: Learn how to use technology to be able to order medication, communicate with a health care provider online and get in touch with help if needed in inclement weather. A smartphone, tablet or computer can be a great tool to get a ride through a ride share app, order meal delivery or get groceries or a pharmacy delivery when it’s too stormy out.

People like to be independent, and seniors are no exception. But it’s OK to ask for help; think of it as a team approach to emergency preparedness. A little bit of advanced preparation and planning for good communication during an emergency or severe weather can help keep everyone safe and comfortable and avoid a crisis.