When You’re the “Alertee”

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As we get older, it’s more and more likely that more of us will live alone.  According to the latest information from the Merck Manuals, some 28% (14.7 million) of US community-dwelling older adults live alone (21% of older men and 34% of older women). The numbers increase with age – some 44 percent of women 75 years or older live alone. For many, medical alerts make sense, for others, a trusted friend with contact info.

It’s only common sense for elders living alone to designate medical ‘alertees” who will sound the alarm and be ‘on deck.”  However there’s more to a good medical alert system than just giving someone a list of phone numbers.

What the ER needs to Know ASAP

Here’s the info every ‘alertee” should have handy, according to Dr.  Anjali Bharati, an emergency room physician at New York City’s Lenox Health Greenwich Village facility:

  •  Full legal name and date of birth. This information makes it easier for medical providers to search for prior ER visits and other medical records.
  • Medical history. A list of all recent procedures or surgeries and medical problems. Important note: keep this information updated.
  • Allergies. Especially to medications but doctors also need to know if a patient has allergic reactions to foods and common household products (e.g., cleaning products, chemicals).
  • Current medication(s), vitamins, supplements taken. Yes, even a list of nutrients is important. Some health conditions don’t mix well with certain supplements including vitamins E and D, CoQ10, and fish oil. Also, some vitamins can counteract or negatively react with blood thinners, heart medications, antibiotics and other prescription drugs.
  • Important names with contact information. Doctor(s) and next-of-kin.

And, if applicable:

  • A health care proxy and/or advanced directives.

Expect The Unexpected

The first five are matters of (important) fact, but the last may involve judgment and decision-making under possibly stressful circumstances.  Discuss in detail with your trusted health care proxy or the person holding your advanced directive(s) the medical decisions you would want made on your behalf.

“I was confident that I knew what Richard would want decided on his behalf in any circumstance. I was wrong.”

As the health care proxy for my best friend (who was also my signed proxy), we had discussed end-of-life issues thoroughly. I was confident that I knew what Richard would want decided on his behalf in any circumstance.

I was wrong.

In a situation of extreme stress a matter came up that (incredibly) we had never considered:  our wishes should one of us be declared brain dead, which is what happened to my friend Richard.

After frantically consulting a theologian, a physician friend, and Richard’s (out-of-state) family plus knowing his religious and personal beliefs very well, I made the decision that I think (and hope) would have been his.

Other Important Considerations

Because a medical emergency can happen at any time, also consider:

Wearing a medical alert – even if you don’t live alone.   A friend who had been away for the day knew something was wrong when her husband didn’t meet her as agreed and didn’t answer the phone.  Loren rushed home after calling police.  Officers broke down the door to reach Ellis, but it was too late.

Preparing your medical “alertees” with the right info. Designating someone as your medical ‘alertee” entails more than simply knowing and trusting them and giving out their phone number.  An effective medical “alertee” should:

  • Live nearby, not travel out of the city a great deal, and/or be in the US most weekends and on holidays;
  • Be listed as someone allowed to enter your apartment if you live in a doorman building;
  • Have immediate, emergency access to your home (keys and the keypad code)

You should also specify that your alertee’s contact info includes all their phone numbers for all their phones with strict instructions that messages should be left with all numbers.

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