Mary McClain: Power outage a disaster for the poor and elderly |

Mary McClain: Power outage a disaster for the poor and elderly

My job has me visiting all kinds of people at home. They include the medically frail, disabled, and elderly.

Some of these people live alone at a poverty level — income under $900 a month. That’s what our lowest income disabled and elderly live on.

During the power outage, I was struck by how these people were managing — or not. Some were dependent on oxygen and switched over to their oxygen tanks versus the oxygen machines that rely on electricity. Some needed help to make the switch due to poor vision, poor dexterity, etc. Several had no gas for heating or cooking.

Living in poverty, they won’t be buying generators anytime soon.

We are told to expect prolonged outages for years to come. So, how will we do better next time serving those in greatest need?

Some called paramedics because they were “so cold.” Some called 911 because they needed more oxygen tanks than they expected, and some of the oxygen companies couldn’t keep up with the demand in a timely way. These folks lacked the mobility to go outside with their walkers and try and warm up in the sun. They don’t drive.

I visited the PG&E Community Resource center at the Sierra College parking lot where they’d set up a large tent. It was filled with tables, folding chairs, power strips to charge devices, and bottles of cold water. The people I visited at home that day could not have sat in folding chairs for any length of time while plugging in their oxygen machines. They are too arthritic or have other musculoskeletal problems. And they would have needed a driver or transportation to get there.

I visited Meals on Wheels that first Wednesday of the outage. Their plan was to deliver a cold meal on Wednesday, no meal on Thursday, and another cold meal on Friday. They do a fantastic job with limited resources overall. During the outage they lacked equipment to maintain their typical offering of a hot meal delivered Monday through Friday. They were doing their best and saddened they couldn’t do more.

While the natural support network of family, friends, neighbors, or chore workers showed up to help, some people lacked these supports. Or their support people were so impacted by the outage themselves that they couldn’t help. For example, they didn’t have gas or needed to tend to their children out of school or care for other loved ones.

PG&E advises people dependent on electricity for their medical needs as follows, “Have you made preparations?” I’m reading that in their full-page ad in The Union today. There are people without family or friends’ homes to escape to. Gaps in preparations happen to everyone, let alone the medically frail living in poverty alone.

Since the outage, I’ve not heard and read enough about the people I visited those days. They are easily forgotten since they’re mostly unseen. But I’m writing in hopes that future planning includes someone at the table who serves this population and takes their concerns to heart.

When the Oroville Dam Spillway failure occurred in February of 2017, nearly 190,000 were ordered to evacuate. A center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds was staffed with medical personnel and appropriate equipment and supplies to serve those in need. The state of California ordered these evacuation centers and the Red Cross put out requests for supplies.

One could argue the multi-day outage isn’t a natural disaster and doesn’t warrant this type of response. Maybe not. But for the medically frail with limited financial and social supports, what matters is that this posed a disaster for them. The PG&E Community Resource Centers aren’t cutting it. We are told to expect prolonged outages for years to come. So, how will we do better next time serving those in greatest need?

Mary McClain is a licensed clinical social worker in the medical field. She’s been visiting patients in their homes in Nevada County for 17 years. She lives in Grass Valley.

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