By Michael Morse
One of the more difficult calls to which we respond is checking the well-being of an elderly person living alone. The 911 call often comes from a son or daughter concerned about an elderly parent who he or she hasn’t heard from in a while. Sometimes, the caller is from out of state. Occasionally, the person we are dispatched to check on is beyond assistance. We never know what to expect.
There is far more to this response than making sure the person at the address is breathing. Family politics often come into play. In many cases, it is extremely difficult for a son, daughter, or any other concerned person to confront an elderly individual and assess his ability and or willingness to care for himself. There are safety concerns to consider, depression worries, hygiene issues, and potential substance abuse problems. At times, friends and families depend on strangers to enter a person’s home and make an unbiased assessment. Very often, the emergency medical services (EMS) engine company are those very strangers. There is no protocol that makes our job easier when responding to a person’s home to check his well-being. No reasonable person would condemn a fire company for simply making sure the person at the address to which it was sent is alive. However, there are always those pesky ethical concerns to consider along with the very real possibility that it just may be us who someday must rely on others to help us.
As uncomfortable as it may be to inject ourselves into another families internal struggles, overcoming your reluctance can often provide desperate people with much needed relief. When we check a person’s well-being, we can also make sure there are no obvious safety concerns in the home. Check the availability of fresh food, observe personal cleanliness and hygiene, and make sure any pets are well taken care of. The responsibility for and future well-being of the person does not rest on us. Through reporting our findings, agencies with expertise in the issues of concern can make proper notifications and then follow up. Nothing is perfect, and we can only control our role in a complex system. Yet, by doing our job well, the chance of a good outcome for a person in need greatly increases.
Sometimes, the call for a well-being check is made by the patient himself. These requests come disguised in many different. Some of the most common ways are to check a blood pressure, assess lightheadedness, evaluate a medication issue, or determine the cause of general weakness. It’s not easy growing old, and even in the best of situations, it is often lonely. Loneliness breeds fear, and fear leads to a host of medical symptoms.
Each and every one of us has (or had) parents. Most of us are fortunate and will live our lives with them, experiencing their transition into old age. It is a delicate transfer of power from parent to child, and it seldom goes smoothly. We worry about them; they worry about us. We see their decline as the years add up, while they often refuse to. It is never easy growing old, but it certainly beats the alternative. Loss of independence is a very real fear for older people, and the longer they are independent, the less willing they are to give it up. Seniors and the people who care for them make a lot of 911 calls, not because they love having a roomful of firefighters visiting, but because something has happened to them and they are afraid. Far too often, their fears are valid.
Losing strength, balance, and control are part of growing old, but that by no means makes the losses easy. Diminishing health goes hand in hand with added years, and the reluctance to ask for help from family has a lot to do with losing a place of prominence in the eyes of the young. It goes without saying that we treat all of our patients with respect and dignity. Fire department EMS carries a tradition of excellence and competence. In many cases, the fire department is vitally important to an elderly person’s independence.
Every day, fire crews respond to 911 calls for assistance for reasons that may seem insignificant, but to the people calling, it means the world. By doing a thorough job every time we are called, the world becomes a better place.
Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.