A power outage away from disaster

Photo by Sheri Hehr Dayton Daily News

On Friday afternoon the trees across the lane bow from their waists with the 80 mph winds that come out of nowhere and leave the same way. The rains pelt. The storm passes.

A little later my daughter Anna calls from Columbus. “I was at work when the electricity went off,” she says. “Everything went pitch black. Now I’m sitting in my car in a parking lot. The traffic is terrible; all the street lights are out.” She has just come through a week of 12-hour workdays where she tried to cover for absent staff and still make deadlines. She is exhausted. “I’m hungry; I don’t have any food in my apartment; and no place has electricity.”

“Go home.” I tell her. “Find something you can eat in your pantry. Call me when you get there.”

She does. She’s worried about being hot in her apartment with no electricity. I try to convince her to come here. She is tired and thinks her electricity will be back on soon. I tell her if she gets too hot to use cool wet cloths to help her cool off.

I’m distracted by her problems, and then I wonder if my parents had the storm. And I get worried. So I call. No answer. The answering machine doesn’t pick up.

I get more worried. I think this is a sign my parents don’t have electricity, although I know it could also mean my mom is on the phone and is ignoring the call-waiting. I call my sister Kathy in Dayton. No answer. This doesn’t tell me anything. She could be anywhere and I find out later that she is at a dinner.

When I call my mom a second time she picks up the phone and sounds out of breath. “I was doing your dad’s catheter when you called the first time,” she says. “Our electricity is out and the portable phone in the bathroom isn’t working.”

“Are you okay? Are you cool enough?” I ask.

“The temperatures dropped about 30 degrees when the storm came through. I opened all the windows.”

She is worried and she can’t get any information from the outside world without her T.V. or radio. She can’t get through to the power company. It is almost 7:30. Fortunately Linda, their evening home health aide, is due to arrive any minute. I Google “power outages in Dayton;” find a site where I can inquire about their particular address; and read that the power company expects their power to be restored by 8:00 pm. I can hear the relief in Mom’s voice when I tell her.

I call back at 9:00. Still no power. “I hope this isn’t like the hurricane that came through here several years ago,” Mom says. “We didn’t have power for 4 or 5 days.”  Although Annie was still alive then, complicating matters, Dad was also fully functional and able to help out. He was able to walk and drive. We could have moved them all to someone’s house or a hotel if we needed to, although they toughed it out at home that time. This time Dad is largely wheelchair bound. “We’ll move you somewhere if we have to,” I tell her. In the back of my mind I think about all the things Dad needs: his wheelchair, walker, lift chair, bed rail, bathroom rails, raised toilet seat, toileting supplies, catheter supplies, incontinence supplies.

Home health aides.

I realize that even if we could somehow manage to get Dad in a car, and back out again, which we haven’t done for probably at least a year, we wouldn’t be able to care for him adequately at my home. We would have to try to get him into some kind of respite care someplace.

“Do you want me to come up?” I ask.

“What can you do?” She responds. “We’re going to bed. It’s cool  enough here now.” She wants me to check online again. She is worried about what tomorrow will bring as the temperature rises into the 90s again. The outage site I visited before now gives no prediction about when her electricity will be restored.

“I’m sure they will have it fixed tonight,” I tell her, although in truth I am not sure.

I pass a restless night; wake at 7:00 on Saturday; and immediately get online to see if I can find out about Mom’s electricity. The outage site I was visiting said there were no reported outages at that number, so I feel some relief that maybe they have restored Mom’s power. When I call her a little after 8:00, I find out they have power.

The stress from yesterday’s events and worries has taken a toll on Mom. Her digestive system is in an uproar. She is worried about losing her electricity again because of overloads on the transformers. This event has highlighted how vulnerable her situation there with Dad is. I try to reassure her. “You are not alone,” I say. “Kathy is there, and I am right here. I am not going to let you die from the heat. We will figure something out if it happens again.” I tell Mom she is lucky because many people don’t have their electricity back. I tell her she has dodged a bullet.

She tells me that Dad has been affected by the whole event. She had trouble getting him to take his medicine last night. She tells me he looked worried. This morning he won’t eat his breakfast. She tells me she has started thickening his water so that he can swallow it. This is news to me. I knew he’s had trouble chewing and swallowing food for a while, but I didn’t know he couldn’t swallow water. This sets me off on another tangent when I hang up.

I Google “swallowing problems with Alzheimer’s,” and read again through the materials about the final stages of Alzheimer’s. I read that the final stages can last from months to years.  I read that partly because of the risk of aspiration, 90% of people with Alzheimer’s die in nursing homes. I find out that a “study that examined autopsy reports of people with dementia found the main causes of death were pneumonia, cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary embolism, cachexia (a condition of ill health marked by significant loss of appetite, weight loss, muscle wasting, and overall debilitation), and dehydration. (About.com)

I try to stay upbeat about and for my parents, but the worry about what happens next and the grief over what is happening now play constantly like a discordant soundtrack beneath my daily life. At times like these the noise drowns out all other melodies.

My daughter Anna calls. She still does not have electricity. I look it up online and see that her power company is comparing the storm to the hurricane several years ago. They predict it will take 5 to 7 days to restore all power. Anna comes home where we can offer her a cool place to sleep, warm water for a shower, and food to eat.