On Her Own

On living alone and medical emergencies

A reader sent me a story the other day, about a woman who suffered a near-fatal medical event while home alone. Fortunately, she was Facetiming with a friend at the time, and just as fortunately, that friend was able to contact a mutual local friend and a family member so that paramedics could be sent and the woman’s home and pets taken care of until she recovered.

It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any of us who spend time alone, whether we live by ourselves full-time or are holding down the fort while a partner travels. Permanently or temporarily single parents might also face the similar situations if their children are very young or otherwise unable to assist if there is an emergency. While many medical problems start with warning signs, you might not be aware of them in the moment. And it’s not just getting sick – you can be injured in moments with falls down stairs, kitchen accidents, and other dangers in the home. When that happens and there’s nobody right there to help you, then what?

Well, before we get there, do you have any conditions that could result in sudden disability? Maybe you have diabetes or some other blood sugar-related issues, or circulatory problems that can cause you to faint unexpectedly. Maybe you are prone to falling because of a tremor or joint problems. Maybe you have horrible allergies that can result in anaphylaxis. You know better than me, of course, but be honest with yourself. Then, when you identify them, your first line of defense against dying alone is to manage those conditions to the best of your ability. If you need to be taking medications, tracking glucose levels, or whatever else – do that. Set alarms if you need to, especially if you’re used to relying on a partner or roommate to remind you about doing what you need to do to stay conscious and functional.

Stay prepared for those times you know you will be alone or otherwise at higher risk by making sure you have adequate meds on hand, and consider carrying ‘immediate fix’ types of solutions (not to mention your cell phone) on your body even if you’re just wandering around your home. You should also learn and regularly review any symptoms of impending problems so that you aren’t tempted to overlook them when they come up. Between the two, you’ll have a fighting chance of self-treating and getting help on the way before the situation becomes dire. In case you don’t, though, you’ll want to ensure that anyone who might end up helping you has an idea of what might be wrong. Medical alert IDs and cell phone entries can be helpful to get responders on the right track. They aren’t foolproof but they can save precious time and ensure more accurate treatment, particularly if you aren’t fully disabled by the time help arrives.

But whether or not you know of any medical problems that might result in you needing help, some of this preparation will still be helpful. Everyone should know things like the signs of a heart attack or stroke, or of a hypoglycemic episode or allergic reaction. In this age, everyone should keep a cell phone within reach especially when they’re on their own. Charging your phone in the kitchen might make sense when you have a full house, but perhaps less so when nobody is home but you. More than that, you should have someone checking in on you on a regular basis, who can raise an alarm if you aren’t responding to them at predetermined intervals. Someone local is ideal, but at the very least they should have contact information for someone who is nearby. You don’t need an elaborate arrangement, just a friend who can make sure you’re literally still alive and who can get in the door if you need help. Even a coworker or boss could be appropriate as long as they know not to assume you’re okay if they don’t hear from you. There are a number of emergencies that could leave you unable to call for help but are completely fixable if help responds within hours instead of days, but you won’t get that kind of response if nobody knows you might be in trouble.

And finally, circling back around to today, think about who should have the right to make medical (and possibly financial) decisions for you if you are incapacitated. The world generally defaults to spouses and parents, and they might not be available or appropriate in your circumstances. You don’t want to find out that’s what happened when you wake up after a near-death episode, so get your legal and practical ducks in a row to designate who you want managing you and your affairs when you can’t. Some states have standard forms, and you might need to get lawyers, doctors, insurance companies, and financial institutions involved, but I promise it is well worth the time. Just – before you do it, have a frank conversation with the person you select so that they are aware of your desires and are agreeable to stepping in if it becomes necessary. They can have immense responsibility in extremely stressful times, so you want to make sure that you can trust them to do what you would want if you were doing it yourself, and you want to give them direction to help them make those decisions.

The woman I describe at the beginning of today’s post got lucky because she had a friend talking to her right at the very moment she had her emergency, but she also had a few of these other measures in place. You, too, can stack the odds in favor of your survival if you live alone part- or full-time. What are you waiting for?

Hi, I'm Annette.

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