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These three words – observe, decide, act – don’t seem like much, but we perform these functions constantly without thinking. If we observe a child attempting to touch a hot surface, we immediately decide they are going to get injured and act almost simultaneously by pulling them away; it is almost an automatic response.

In our daily work with individuals with IDD, we often observe something that may be different, such as the way a person may be acting, or their appetite is off, or their bowel movements look unusual. Often, unfortunately, we do not act on that observation which can lead to consequences.

Caregivers may inadvertently contribute to the problem by taking steps to combat those little things that make day-to-day life somewhat unpleasant. Medications to combat drooling and withholding fluids for several hours before bedtime are two practices that can lead to an enhanced risk of dehydration. Drooling may be improved by having the person work with a speech pathologist to treat the root cause of the problem instead of eliminating the symptoms. Swallowing saliva also has a positive effect on the GI tract, reducing the concentration of the gastric contents and helping them to be sluiced from the esophagus back into the stomach. Pushing fluids earlier in the day, using a night time toileting schedule or incontinence briefs can combat bedwetting without depriving the person of essential hydration.

If you don’t know the signs and symptoms of a seizure emergency or a heart attack or aspiration, how will you know when you need to do something?

How do you know when something is different and that you need to do something? First, get to know the individuals you are serving. Everyone has their own little idiosyncrasies: Does Christy always touch the door 3 times before leaving the house? Does she eat one food at a time and doesn’t like to have different foods touch each other? What do her bowel movements look like? How often does she usually urinate during your shift? Knowing the answers to these simple things can help you determine if you need to act on something you have observed. If Christy generally urinates three times during your shift and today she has urinated six times without having had extra fluid, yes, that absolutely needs to be reported and action taken. The action taken may be as simple as calling the nurse and observing Christy more closely. Action may mean a doctor visit. Regardless, this situation should stimulate some response from you.

Documenting what you observe is essential! Leaving a paper trail so that everyone knows what is going on is very helpful. This makes it easy to see when an event first occurred so we can track back to any specific triggers. Documenting also gets the information out of your head and down permanently. We all carry so much knowledge about the individuals we serve in our heads which can’t help anyone else unless shared. Putting it in writing is the best way to share information so that it can be read by everyone providing services to that person so that they become as familiar as you are.

Education of all persons providing supports to an individual is essential. If you don’t know the signs and symptoms of a seizure emergency or a heart attack or aspiration, how will you know when you need to do something? Attend all the training opportunities that you can. Read articles, listen to webinars, attend in-services, ask questions – there are multiple ways you can educate yourself. Always share what you learn with your co-workers or other support team members so that they also become more aware.

Observing an event and deciding to initiate some form of action is integral in your day-to-day work and you do it hundreds of times a day. Ensure you are aware of when you should or need to act. Never be afraid to act, it might save a life.

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