Weathering the Storm When the Power Goes Out – Helping Seniors Prepare

Brrrrrrrr pretty much summarizes things for many Americans.

This winter’s weather has proven to be difficult for many across the country, adults and seniors alike.

The storms, including the recent polar vortex, have dumped snow, rain, ice and freezing temperatures onto us and our seniors making their life hard and putting many at real risk — even taking the lives of some.

We have all seen the news reports that some have been stranded in their cars, slipped on the ice fracturing bones and even having fatal heart attacks when shoveling the snow.

Seniors Especially at Risk

Seniors who are living alone or caring for a spouse who needs assistance are at special danger during winter storms and power outages, making it vital to have back up plans in place when power outages hit.

We heard heart- (and mind-) wrenching stories from our own town of seniors who live alone and suffered through a twenty two hour power outage during the recent cold snap. Several seniors were left in the cold and dark without power for that prolonged period.

Fortunately the power outage was not longer, as many older women couldn’t get the garage door open to drive to a shelter, many didn’t know where to go if they could get out due to lack of communication channels, and some depended on a wood fireplace to make heat throughout the night.

Too many were simply unprepared for a power outage that lasted that long.

What Goes Wrong When the Power Fails

Electricity is something we have come to take for granted, assuming a light will go on when we flip the switch, for example. So much can go wrong for us when it isn’t there. Here are just some of them.

  1. No lights, leaving us stumbling in the dark and worse
  2. No electric heat, circulating fans or space heaters, which can be deadly in the cold
  3. No phone if it comes from your cable provider and no phone charger for your cell phone
  4. No television or cable to get emergency information or to help stave off loneliness
  5. No internet, except via cellular devices (which you may be unable to charge)
  6. Refrigerator and freezer not powered, leaving food to spoil
  7. No oven, microwave or stove top to prepare food
  8. Garage door opener not powered, leaving the car stranded inside (or outside) unless the manual override is known
  9. Electronic personal monitoring systems (PERS) or alert devices not powered or rechargeable
  10. Medical devices not powered unless they have emergency backup
  11. No electric appliances, including can openers

Those are just direct impacts. Many people die or are injured overcoming a lack of power, such as by fires sparked by candles used to break the darkness.

Preparations to Better Handle Emergencies

We can’t guarantee power will stay on 100% of the time for senior loved ones, but we can help them prepare for those times it goes out.

  • Keep emergency supplies on hand such as flashlights, battery powered radio, manual can opener, blanket, first aid supplies, medications.
  • Have a plan for joining an emergency shelter so that heat and food can be provided, become familiar with which church or organization will be open as an emergency shelter and where it is located.
  • Keep a cell phone available with emergency phone contact numbers to contact for help. This may be a pre-paid phone that is available for emergency use that is kept fully charged
  • Keep cell phones charged to help get through the time that power is off
  • Keep water and non-perishable foods available throughout the winter.
  • Refresh emergency supplies, including batteries and foods, several times a year so they are always ready for use.
  • Learn how to open the garage door when the button doesn’t work.
  • Don’t open the refrigerator or freezer during an outage unless needed, then open and close them quickly. Keep the temperature as low as possible to protect perishable food items. If the power is out longer than 24 hours there may be spoiled foods that need to be discarded. If power is out for prolonged periods, some items may be maintained in a cooler with ice.

Those tips are good for all of us, not just seniors. These preparations are especially helpful when we have senior loved ones living on their own, especially if they have special medical needs.

  • Have a plan for someone to check on at-risk loved ones when the power is out and establish a way to communicate established when phone, email or other internet options such as Skype are not available
  • Learn about critical medical devices that are power and their battery backup. Know how it functions and keep the battery charged in the event the power goes out. Let the electric company and local emergency officials know there is a medical device that requires power so that they can keep it on their priority list for service resumption or alternative action
  • Be aware of potential risk if a PERS device is not receiving power; will the system send alerts if power is not available so that alternate means of supervision for safety can be implemented?

As caregivers, we try so hard to account for every possible situation when it comes to day to day care. When something out of the ordinary strikes, such as the extreme cold a polar vortex brings, we can end up being blindsided.

Our local seniors’ reaction to the recent power outage reminded us we should assume it won’t happen to us or our own senior loved ones.  We should all have emergency preparations in place and up to date with each season.

We hope these tips will help you help your senior loved ones weather the next storm and be prepared for anything that comes their way throughout the coming year.