Reducing falls at home and other ways to make a home safe for the elderly

According to a study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), more than three-quarters of adults age 50 and older in the U.S. prefer to live in their own homes as long as possible. However, a study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that less than 10 percent of homes are “aging-ready,” and present considerable risks to the health and safety of their older adult residents.

Whether you need to help make an elderly parent’s home safer or ready your home for a parent that’s moving in, here are some important tips and senior safety devices to help keep your parent as safe and independent as possible. This home safety checklist will help you to conduct a safety audit of your home.

The first step – preparing for change

Change is hard at any age, and it can often be more challenging as we get older. Change can represent loss of control and this, in turn, can feel like losing independence. So, before you start making any home-modification plans, it is important to talk things over with your parent. Keeping your parent involved in the decision-making process helps things go more smoothly by eliminating the negative reactions that typically arise when people feel like they’ve been deliberately kept out of the loop.

Also, don’t bring up everything that needs to change all at once. It’s best to start the conversation with any small changes that need to be made and take care of those first, and then gradually introduce larger issues that need to be addressed. Involving your parent’s doctor with the discussion can also make things easier as your parent may more willing accept advice when it comes from a trusted professional.

Reducing falls at home

In the U.S., falls are the leading cause of injury and death for older adults. In fact, about 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year resulting in more than 32,000 fatalities. There are many factors that can make one more prone to falling, such as:

  • Decreased visual acuity
  • Declining motor skills
  • Decreased cognitive abilities
  • Certain medications
  • Medical history of stroke or Parkinson’s disease

The good news is many falls are preventable. Here are some ways you can help your parent reduce the risk of falling:

  • Stay active – Being physically fit goes a long way to prevent falls. Have your parent focus on activities and movements that strengthen the legs and improve balance, like tai chiconsult your parent’s doctor for activities that are best suited if they have low mobility.
  • Assistive devices – If your parent requires better support and balance, consider walking aids such as walking stick, tripod, walking frame or rollator – and make sure the rooms in which it is used provide needed clearance and are free of clutter. Reaching aids that help your parent to obtain an item safely, without stretching or over-balancing, can also help reduce falls further.
  • Remove trip hazards – Replace all throw rugs and mats with non-slip versions. Rugs should be changed throughout the house, but make the kitchen, bedroom and any bathrooms a first priority. Secure or reroute any exposed electrical cords and remove all low-profile furniture and any floor-level clutter that may pose a risk.
  • House pets – This can be a delicate subject, but cats and dogs can pose a significant fall risk. If a pet is highly energetic, erratic in behavior or prone to sudden bursts of running around inside the house, consider securing an area of the house with pet gates (like the kitchen or laundry room) so the pet still has plenty of room but isn’t a constant tripping threat. Also, be mindful that pet toys scattered on the floor are also tripping hazards – store them in a basket or box when not in play.
  • Thresholds – Changes from tile to wood or carpet can contribute to falls. Applying a strip of bright orange tape on thresholds alerts the elderly to a change in the floor surface. Raised flooring between rooms can also be an issue – ask a safety expert about flattening thresholds, adding small ramps or handrails. If the floor itself is too slippery, consider replacing with non-slip flooring or applying non-slip strips directly to the existing floor to make it safer.
  • Floor lighting – It always helps to see where one’s going, so install plug-in or battery-powered lights along well-traveled paths, such as bed to bathroom and around the kitchen. Motion sensor lights are an option that are perfect for the bathroom and hallways. While shedding light on the situation can help avoid falls, be sure any conventional floor lamps are secured to the ground and that both the lamps and their cords are not placed in walking paths but tucked away behind furniture.
  • Stepping up safety – If the home has multiple levels, make every effort to move all essential activities to the first floor. If this is not possible, consider installing a personal elevator or stair lift chair. If mobility is not a concern, then make sure all stairways have firm handrails. Consider replacing exterior steps with ramps where possible or installing handrails and non-slip strips to existing steps.
  • Grab bars – Grab bars are quite common in bathrooms, but consider installing them throughout the house where a steady hand could prevent a fall, such as the kitchen, bedroom, by a recliner, etc.
  • Clothing and footwear – Ensure your parent has clothing that is neither too constrictive nor too loose, as loose pant legs that are too long could that could trip them up. Check to make sure they are wearing non-skid shoes/slippers in the home and avoid laces on shoes if they can’t be securely tied.

Make your parent’s home furniture-friendly

Whether it’s a favorite recliner or cherished antique table handed down through the generations, home furnishings can have strong emotional attachments. Creating a safer environment for your parent may be as simple as rearranging existing furniture for easier accessibility, but some items – no matter how beloved – may need to be carefully reconsidered for their potential safety risks. Here are ways to make furnishings safer throughout the home:

  • Make space – Arrange furniture so there are clear walking paths, making sure that there’s a good three feet of clearance for safer mobility and to minimize fall hazards. This may require moving some furnishings to other parts of the house or possibly passing along to other family members, selling or donating. Again, calmly discuss this with your parent before making any changes, let them know why you are suggesting these changes and, if they need to be removed, let them help decide where such furnishings should go.
  • Beware of glass and sharp corners – That coffee table may have hosted many a family game night, but if it has sharp corners or a glass top, it would be best to replace it with a round table and forgo any breakable glass adornments.
  • Secure shelving – If your parent were to trip, it’s only natural for them to grab onto whatever is nearby to prevent their fall. If what they grab onto happens to be an unsecured shelving unit, they could sustain more injuries than had they simply fallen to the ground. Make sure all shelving or storage units are secured to the wall so they can’t inadvertently topple on top of them.
  • Chairs – Avoid rocking chairs and chairs on wheels that will move when someone attempts to sit. If your parent could use a little help standing up, consider a chair lift recliner, the cost of which may be covered under Medicare.
  • In the bedroom – Most bed frames position the mattress 20 to 23 inches off the floor, but your parent may find it easier if the bed is positioned higher or lower. If they use a wheelchair, then the mattress should be level as possible with the seat of the wheelchair. If your parent has experienced any falls from bed, then consider safety bed rails for seniors, wedge pillows, a frame that positions the mattress lower to the ground or one that has an adjustable height frame that makes it easier to get in and out. If changing the placement of their bed, make sure it is positioned so your parent can get out of bed on the side they are accustomed to.
  • In the bathroom – Install night lights to illuminate the path to the bathroom. To minimize your parent’s risk of falling while in the bathroom, consider grab bars near the toilet and in shower, as well as raised toilet seats, shower chairs and transfer benches. If they are at high risk for falling and frequently use the bathroom in the middle of the night, gently suggest that a bedside commode may be the safest option.

Safety alarms

No matter how risk-free you make your home, there is always a chance an accident will occur. There are a host of emergency-alert wearable devices and services to choose from, many of which can be self-installed. Explore the various options and choose the ones that best suits your parent’s needs and give you peace of mind.

You should also check existing house alarms to make sure they have fresh batteries and are in good working order. Here’s a list of things you should consider:

  • Smoke detectors
  • Carbon monoxide detectors
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Stove alarms
  • Gas stove safety knobs

Make your parent’s home easier to manage

Removing potential fall and safety hazards is important, but also consider small things that can be done to makes everyday activities easier, too.

  • Remove all the clutter – Clear out those old stacks of newspapers and magazines, create a box for mail, put any dirty laundry on the floor into a hamper and move any favored knick-knacks to a central location – or, better yet, ask if they can be stored away. Such items pose tripping hazards and free up space that may be used for more crucial items.
  • Make everyday items more accessible – Once you decluttered the floor and countertops, consider using some of that space for things devoted to the activities of daily living, like eyeglass cleaner, moisturizer, tissues and the like. If possible, put bathroom essentials within easy reach, like toothbrush, toothpaste, liquid soap and eye drops. Minimize items in the shower with an organizer that holds just a few essentials, and make sure the shower floor has non-slip strips.
  • Refrigerator and pantry – Make nutritious food choices easy by cleaning out the fridge and making sure desirable items are placed front and center. This goes for any food stored in the pantry as well. Remove any opened bags of snacks that may have gone stale and double-check those expiration dates – that bottle of spaghetti sauce or can of condensed milk may have gone bad months ago.

Home safety tips for older adults with dementia

Here are some additional safety precautions to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s home safety risks. These would apply for older adults whose cognitive impairment can be managed at home – those with more significant memory loss may need around-the-clock supervision, which should be determined by an appropriate medical professional.

  • Use appliances with auto-shutoff features – You should also install hidden gas valves and circuit breakers, so that ovens, fireplaces and stoves can’t be accidently left on.
  • Put finger guards on garbage disposals – In lieu of finger guards, you can cover on/off switches with safety locks.
  • Lock up harmful items – Put locks on any drawers or cabinets containing knives, cleaning supplies, and medication. Secure garages or basements that may contain harmful chemicals or machinery.
  • Hide exterior door locks – Make sure door locks are out of sight or use deadbolts to prevent potentially dangerous wandering outside the house.
  • Remove bedroom and bathroom locks – This will prevent accidental lock-ins which could create a panic.
  • Create clear paths and open areas – This encourages independence and social interaction which, according to Alzheimer’s Association, are two important needs for people with dementia.

Don’t wait to be safe

As mentioned earlier, it’s best to gradually introduce any changes that need to be made, but don’t wait to get started. It’s better to prepare your home before an emergency or life-changing event takes place. The changes you make can avoid accidents, reduce fall risks and make it make it easier for your parent to age at home.

We’re always here to help

As a leader in the industry, Atria Senior Living is happy to share our expertise and offer any support we can – even if the support you need is from someone other than us. We can call on our trusted relationships with other senior living organizations and resources to put you in touch with the best solution for you and your family. Please reach out to your local Atria Community Director today and they’ll be happy to help in any way they can.

Our Guide to Making Home Safer for Your Parent (PDF)

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