5 tips that could save your life in a medical emergency

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The time to plan for an emergency is not while one is happening. It’s a good idea to plan ahead for emergencies, since you never know when one is going to arise, and when it does you want to know exactly what to do.

For seniors, even those in good health, the chances of medical emergencies are somewhat greater than for most younger people. So here are some things to do before and during an emergency that might save your life or someone in your family. It’s not necessarily pleasant to think about, but if the need arises, you’ll be glad you prepared.

1. Keep a list of the medications you are taking. In case you are incapacitated from an accident or illness, your spouse or a relative or friend can inform physicians and EMTs of what prescriptions and other medications you have so they can be aware of possible drug interactions. Also keep the name and phone number of the prescribing physician so they can be contacted in case of questions.

2. Keep the contact information of your spouse or another trusted relative or friend on your person. Your smartphone is a convenient place for this information. Having this available will enable medical professionals know whom to contact if you’re unconscious and they need to know your health background.

3. Keep your medical power of attorney up to date. A medical power of attorney designates a person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to. Decide what medical treatment options you prefer and are comfortable with, and make those preferences clear to the person you designate. The person should be someone who is not intimidated by medical professionals and can ask challenging questions, and will put aside their own feelings about a particular medical procedure in order to ensure that your wishes are carried out.

4. Know the signs of a medical emergency. Often a medical emergency happens without warning. Sometimes, though, there are advance signs. It’s wise to know the warning signs of heart attack or stroke and other medical emergencies, if someone in your family may be susceptible to these events. Likewise, if you have a history of heart conditions, it’s important that others in your family know what to do. Also consider enrolling in a first-aid class.

5. Seek medical help if you’re in doubt. Many people are hesitant to call an ambulance because they’re not sure it’s an emergency, or they fear wasting the EMTs’ time. In a true emergency, the patient may have only a matter of minutes before death or irreparable damage occurs.

If you or someone in your household is having chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, or other signs of a medical emergency, call 911. “Minutes count,” says David Barlas, MD, assistant professor and chief of service at NYU Langone Medical Center. Many communities have “Smart911”, which saves time because much of your information is already in the system and the dispatcher does not have to ask as many questions in order to send help.

Medical alert systems are also worth considering for seniors who live at home, particularly those living alone. A pendant worn around the neck and connected to a medical alerting network could save a life in a medical emergency. The operators who monitor the medical alert system’s lines are trained to handle all sorts of emergencies and situations. If you cannot reach a phone, or cannot speak because of an acute health issue, a medical alert system is an effective way to summon help.

6. Know the medications you are taking and why you are taking them. This is not usually a medical emergency, but can significantly affect your health. The label on each bottle should indicate what each medication is for and when and how to take it. Taking multiple medications is common among seniors. According to American Nurse Today, “44% of men and 57% of women older than age 65 take five or more medications per week; about 12% of both men and women take 10 or more medications per week.”

Another problem is that some patients receive different medications from different pharmacies, so that each pharmacist may not be aware of other medications being taken. You may have adverse drug interactions as a result. In addition, because older adults metabolize drugs differently, they are more susceptible to possible harm from their medications.” A 2005 article in Pharmacotherapy indicated that more than two-thirds of hospitalized elderly adults had an adverse drug effect over a four-year period.

Bring a complete list of your medications, including nonprescription medications and dietary supplements, to your doctor appointments. Ask if you have any questions, including about dosage and how to take the medication. In addition, older adults metabolize medications differently, so some drugs or dosages may not be appropriate for seniors. The American Geriatric Society’s Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults lists some medications that older adults should use with caution or avoid. Again ask your physician or pharmacist if you have questions, and don’t be hesitant about seeking a second opinion. Some doctors are more informed and up to date on the needs of older adults than others.

This video describes how to respond when someone is having a heart attack.

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