Firefighters show follow-through in Minnetonka

Senior citizens benefit from new push to follow up on emergency calls.

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Charles Wickman, center, credited Minnetonka firefighters Sara Ahlquist and Jim Lundeen with treating him respectfully during their repeated visits, which started with a 911 call last winter after a fall.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Minnetonka firefighters first met 79-year-old Charles Wickman last winter, after he fell in his home, crawled to a phone and dialed 911.

Firefighters responded with a "lift assist": They got Wickman back on his feet, checked to make sure he was OK and left. Normally that would have been the end of firefighters' contact with him, unless he fell and called again. Which he did, several times.

That's when firefighters Jim Lundeen and Sara Ahlquist visited Wickman, not because of an emergency, but to try to figure out if he was safe in the big house he had shared with his wife, now deceased, and kids, now grown up and on their own.

"I was flabbergasted and very impressed," said Wickman, who hasn't fallen for several months. "I never heard about a fire department having that kind of commitment. I feel a little bit safer."

Minnetonka is believed to be the first Minnesota fire department to try to expand services to residents by doing follow-up visits after certain emergency calls to make sure residents are safe in their homes. The program, which began in January and had helped 54 people by the last week of June, is patterned after a similar project in Phoenix. Almost all of the Minnetonka residents who got follow-up visits were senior citizens, who make up almost 17 percent of the city's population.

Minnetonka Fire Chief Joe Wallin said his department answers about 1,800 calls each year, about half of them medical calls that include lift assists.

"With our aging population, the issues are different," he said. "We were going out to pick people up when they fell down or take them to the hospital after a heart attack, and then we'd leave when the residents needed us the most."

Return visit, 24 hours later

Wallin said the department has noticed a lot of "repeat customers" for lift assists. Firefighters who respond to those calls are asked to look around homes and note on their reports if they think residents might benefit from a visit from Lundeen and Ahlquist.

"We wondered if we could put them in touch with someone who could put a [grab] bar in a bathroom or rearrange a home so it's not so full," Wallin said. "We want them to stay in their homes if their quality of life is high. The byproduct is we don't have to go out and see them again."

Lundeen and Ahlquist, who specialize in safety and education programs, keep files with information and contacts in their vehicles. Usually they knock on residents' doors within about 24 hours after a 911 call, long enough for the panic to subside but with the incident still fresh in people's minds.

So far, residents have been glad to talk.

The pair have connected seniors to food shelves and programs that have volunteers buy groceries. They've handed out information about Parkinson's disease, Meals on Wheels, emergency alert buttons and ramps for homes. They figured out that a man whose electric wheelchair kept tipping over after it got tangled in a rug would benefit from a rubber mat that held the rug in place. They found help for supposedly healthy spouses who were at their wits' end after years of care giving.

"Every case is solving a puzzle," Lundeen said. "Sometimes we'll go back four, five or six times."

Repeat visits do not indicate failure, Wallin said. "Crews that are sent out at 3 a.m., 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. [for lift assists], they're working on the symptom. This crew is working on the core problem."

Quality of life

Sometimes the issue is less safety than quality of life. An older woman who slipped on an ice cube and badly bruised her hip told Ahlquist and Lundeen that she was fine, but that she was sad she was not physically able to plant the flower bed outside the kitchen window that gave her so much pleasure. The pair found volunteers to plant the garden for her.

Repeat visits have led to discussions about how long seniors should hang onto homes and what the future holds. In some cases, adult children haven't been able to get their parents to acknowledge that they can't cope with big yards and houses. In others, everyone was avoiding the discussion.

Ahlquist said that as outsiders, she and Lundeen are not emotionally attached to the people or properties and can look objectively at the situation. Being in uniform doesn't hurt, either.

Said Lundeen: "Sometimes the kids say, you've got the shirt, can you be the bad guy and get the discussion going. [The parent] will listen to authority. ...

"Sometimes life changes so fast that they don't realize what's happening."

Mutual respect

Wallin said the department wants to help people without embarrassing them. Wickman said he felt that respect.

Last year, he fell out of bed and broke his left ankle and right foot. After a three-month stay in a nursing home, he talked his way into a release. Looking back, he admits he left too soon.

"I was unbalanced and weak," Wickman said.

He's better now but is being careful, keeping a walker at every level in his home. His kids have talked to him about leaving the house, and he's thought about it a bit more. But he's not ready yet.

He appreciates that even when he was physically and emotionally vulnerable, his conversations with the firefighters left him feeling like a partner in the discussion, not a dependent.

"They don't make you feel like they're doing you a big favor," Wickman said. "That's very positive."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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  • Minnetonka numbers

    Thursday July 5, 2012

    16.7 percent of residents were 65 and older in 2010.

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