Being able to stay in your own home as you age is the gold standard for many of us, but that ideal can be challenging to pull off when you live on your own and don’t have family nearby to help. The secret to doing it successfully: Preparing for a potential emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster such as a hurricane…an injury such as a fall…or an acute illness.
Here are the steps to take now to help keep yourself safe and secure in any event in the future.
1—Get all your legal documents in order, and store them in one place in your home. This includes your health insurance cards and policy information, will, trusts, power of attorney and an advance health-care directive that states your wishes in the event that you become incapacitated. Also give a set of copies to someone you trust. I can’t tell you how common it is for a scavenger hunt to ensue because no one knows where these documents are when an emergency occurs and first responders and medical staff don’t know your wishes.
2—Wear a medical-alert pendant or bracelet. Even if you are active and healthy, wearing one of these devices gives peace of mind in case of emergency. You shouldn’t just rely on a cell phone—you may not be able to reach it. And digital assistants, such as Alexa, currently can’t call 911. Consider a plan that offers a mobile network with GPS technology that you also can use when you are away from home if you were to get lost or, say, suffer cardiac symptoms or an injury on a hike or bike ride. Buy a waterproof model that can be worn in the shower. The Apple Watch is another option, although it can be difficult to set up for those who are not tech-savvy.
These devices aren’t just for injuries and illness. You can use them to call 911 in the event of fire or flood or if someone is trying to break into your home.
3—Make a plan for responders to get into your home. What happens if you need emergency help and can’t get to the door to unlock it? Besides a delay in your treatment, first responders are going to knock down your door or break a window to get inside, and the repair costs will be up to you. Giving a neighbor a key—and including him/her on the contact list for your medical-alert provider—is one way to avoid that. Add an extra level of security by getting a lockbox to hold your keys on your front or back doorknob. (This is the gadget that realtors use in order to enter a house that is for sale.) Or install a keypad lock that requires only a numerical code. Give the access code to a neighbor and to your local police and fire departments. This way, it’s in the dispatcher’s instructions to first responders if you call 911.
4—Make your kitchen emergency central. One of the first places responders look for info is the refrigerator door. Post a list there of what responders should do in an emergency. Include the people to contact and their phone numbers, the location of those important legal documents you’ve stored in one place, preferred doctor and hospital information, and the medications you take and where they are located. Also helpful: Keep all those meds (prescription and over-the-counter) in a visible container on your kitchen counter.
5—Stock up on provisions. Make sure you have at least one week’s worth of medications on hand at all times—set up auto refills and delivery service with your local pharmacy. Keep about two weeks of nonperishable foods (canned soups and vegetables, pasta, cereal, peanut butter, etc.) on hand, as well as personal-care items, a supply of batteries and a working fire extinguisher.
6—Get involved in your community. Social support and companionship have been shown to improve physical and mental health, and there’s another plus for those who live alone—it extends your care network. Attending a regularly scheduled event might raise a red flag if you don’t show up one week, for example. You also can develop a buddy system with other people in the same situation and check in on one another daily with a call or text—just as you should be doing with faraway family members. YWCAs/YMCAs typically offer many programs, as do many church and religious organizations and local community centers. Seek out local clubs for your personal interests.
7—Interview home care agencies well before you need them. Most people call for professional assistance only in an emergency—after an injury, returning home after rehab or when they suddenly realize that they need help. If you investigate care providers when you’re well, you can decide which one you prefer and have your information in its system so that it is ready to go when you are.
Home care isn’t just for the immobile or cognitively impaired. Services such as grocery shopping, transportation to the doctor, light housekeeping and companionship also come in handy.
8—Stay on your feet. One out of every four adults age 65+ suffers a fall annually. It is the leading cause of injury and death in this age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prevent falls by having your bathroom outfitted with grab bars, shower benches, nonslip mats and elevated toilet seats—these items can be useful for anyone, not just for seniors. As a precaution, always wear your medical-alert device while in the bathroom.
You’ll also want to remove any area rugs with corners you can trip over…make sure that you have plenty of lighting (including nightlights)…eliminate clutter on floors and steps…and arrange furniture so that you have plenty of room to maneuver. Eldercare and home-safety companies often will have safety pros available who can come to your home, usually for an hourly rate, and do an assessment of what you need. You also can find checklists online, such as from the CDC at https://bit.ly/2AaGPQp.
And, of course, stay physically active. Exercise helps prevent injury by maintaining strength and balance.
9—Consider working with a geriatric-care manager if you become infirm. These professionals are typically licensed nurses or social workers who specialize in geriatrics—though they can help people of any age. They are sometimes referred to as “professional relatives” because they can take over a lot of what family members might help manage—assessing your assistance needs, helping develop a care plan, hiring help and acting as your advocate. They usually charge by the hour and typically aren’t covered by insurance. The cost may be worth it, however, because they can ensure a more positive outcome and reduce medical costs down the road, lessen the need for distant family members (if you even have them) to engage in emergency travel and save the time spent trying to coordinate care. Ask about nearby care managers at your doctor’s office, elder-care companies that probably have them on staff and local senior programs…or go to Eldercare Locator at Eldercare.acl.gov.