Personal shopper. Friend. Walking and bingo partner.
Those are just a few of the roles Rebecca Ptacek takes on for clients like 80-year-old Nina Anderson, whom Ptacek cares for each weekday through SYNERGY HomeCare, an in-home care provider.
But Ptacek now has an added role: Cold weather companion. This year, Synergy HomeCare has added an increased focus on providing care for senior citizens in the winter by making sure pantries are stocked, prescriptions are filled and the heat is up with cold weather checks. The checks are for those who simply need help when temperatures dip into the teens and snow starts to fall, as well as for clients like Anderson, who receive daily care.
“It's just an increased focus on providing care for seniors in inclement weather, when they don't want to get out and may want to stay isolated in their homes,” said Omaha SYNERGY franchise owner Matt Bratsburg.
Other home care agencies in the area — Omaha is headquarters to two large franchise chains, Home Instead and Right at Home — take similar measures for regular clients during the winter months but do not have dedicated cold-weather programs.
“A lot of senior care comes down to just practicing common sense,” especially during the winter, said Philip Pullum, administrator of Right at Home's Omaha office.
When a cold snap or heavy snow is expected to move through Omaha, Ptacek makes sure that she and Anderson stock up at the grocery store and the heat is set between 68 and 70 degrees. She'll also check that windows are secured, that Anderson has plenty of blankets and that flashlights are working in the event of a power outage. Caregivers will also arrange for snow removal if necessary, Bratsburg said.
“And I always let her know ahead of time what the temperature is” and what activities are planned for the day, Ptacek said.
While Anderson is a regular client, virtually any arrangement is possible, Bratsburg said.
At SYNERGY, visits cost between $18 and $21 per hour depending on the type of service — companionship, homemaking or personal care — and the duration of the service. The more a client uses the service, the lower the hourly rate.
Courtesy visits, or cold checks, when a caregiver simply checks on a client's well-being, making sure the heat is on and windows and doors are sealed, are $35 per visit, and no contracts are required for any of the services, Bratsburg said.
Rick Basch, president of Arizona-based SYNERGY, said it's important for family members and neighbors to check on the elderly people they know, and, if they can't, to arrange for companion checks. Among the hazards the elderly face, he said:
» Some senior citizens don't feel temperature drops because of dementia or medication that can affect awareness. They also may be concerned with high heating bills and keep thermostats set too low, making them subject to hypothermia.
» Seniors who can't get to the grocery store may not be eating properly and can quickly get dehydrated. Similarly, trips to the pharmacy and doctor are more difficult, so it's easy to get off track from taking medications as prescribed.
» Depression can set in, aggravated by medication and feelings of isolation that come with being trapped indoors.
Just as important as making sure the home is set for a cold snap is making sure that senior citizens get out despite the frigid conditions, Bratsburg said. Anderson and Ptacek have visited the Joslyn Art Museum and sometimes walk a mall.
“If it's halfway nice out, like 50s or 60s, we also walk (outdoors) because I feel it's very important that they get some kind of exercise,” Ptacek said. “In the winter, all of us are prone to do the whole hibernate thing and not move much.”
In addition to making sure fridges are full and clients are dressed appropriately when leaving the house, Pullum said Right at Home emphasizes having a solid communication plan in the event of extreme weather.
“It's important for seniors to inform others of what their plans are during these times of bad weather,” he said, as well as keep their cellphone charged in the event that they lose power. “If we get these 50 mile-per-hour winds that we got the other day, and their power goes out and they're not able to utilize their telephone, they need to at least be able to use their cellphone.”
Omaha Home Instead operations manager Jenny Andreoli said that in the event of a snowstorm, some caregivers will pack a backpack to stay overnight with a client. “We don't provide special extra measures, but our caregivers always make sure they go above and beyond,” she said.
Anderson, 80, grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, where she raised her four children. Her daughter lives in Omaha but works full time and has relied on Ptacek's help since about October.
“As long as their family and she's happy, and want someone available, I'm always here,” Ptacek said.
“We just play it by ear,” Anderson said.