The places we live may not change much over time, but we do. As we age, our eyesight often dims. Our balance can falter. And at some point, the comfortable dwelling space we once took for granted can become dangerous to our older selves.
A November 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited falls as the leading cause of injury deaths among Americans age 65 and older. As adults age, the odds increase that they may fall prey to uneven or poorly lighted steps, slick floors or slippery bathtubs.
Other potentially lethal “in-house” hazards facing the elderly include old and unpredictable wiring, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty space heaters, cooking fires borne of forgetfulness and the possibility of misreading the instructions on prescription medications.
At the same time, the majority of Americans age 65 and older (85 percent, according to a 2006 AARP survey) would prefer to remain at home instead of moving into a retirement community. The reasons may be sentimental but are more likely financial: Why leave a house that has already been paid for or an apartment that costs much less than assisted living?
Moreover, ours is a highly mobile society that may place the nearest children or close relatives hundreds of miles away. It is to the benefit of seniors living alone and those close to them to conduct periodic inventories of their houses or apartments to uncover hidden hazards.
“These might be things you wouldn’t expect, like the refrigerator,” says Cindy Tait, president of the Center for Healthcare Education in Riverside, Calif. “A lot of older people have older appliances, and the refrigerator may not be cooling sufficiently anymore.” A longtime paramedic who helped create a Riverside program called “Happy at Home,” Tait believes many cases of what is diagnosed as flu among the elderly might actually be food poisoning.
Experts say the first step in keeping an older person safe and happy at home is to do an inventory of the individual. What specific skills or senses may have been depleted by age? Is vision a problem? What about general weakness or specific joint stiffness? Does the individual have a tendency toward memory lapses? Depending on what difficulties the individual may have, his or her living space may need to be adjusted to accommodate it.
Here are some examples of areas in a senior’s home that should be evaluated for safety:
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, older people on average require four times more light than younger people. They also experience increased sensitivity to glare.
In addition, aging eyes often have difficulty defining contrasts and edges such as the subtle divide between one stair step and the next. In all cases, stairwells should be well lighted, and track lighting outlining each step can be another safeguard (as long as it isn’t so bright as to cause confusion).
In their brochure “Lighting the Way: A Key to Independence,” researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., pay special attention not only to bedroom and bathroom lighting, but also the path in between. Many serious falls occur when an elderly person awakes in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Half asleep and disoriented, they are often fooled by distances or shapes in the semi-darkness.
The RPI brochure suggests: “Mark the path between the bed and bathroom with one or more plug-in nightlights. These are commonly available with a photocell that turns the light on automatically at night. Install light switches with toggles that glow in the dark.”
In a perfect world, every house occupied by elderly persons would be on one level. But even when that is impractical, stairs can still be made less burdensome and perilous. Here are some stair safety suggestions from the Public Health Agency of Canada:
- Make sure to place a light at the top and bottom of the staircase.
- Consider installing rubber or other non-stick treads on top of each riser.
- Make sure all the stairs are even. One uneven step may be enough to trigger a fall, especially on a descent.
- If the steps are carpeted, make sure the carpet isn’t loose or bunched at any point.
- Install handrails on both sides of the stairs at a suggested height of 36 by 39 inches.
- Avoid clutter on staircases.
Next to falls, home fires are the leading cause of accidental death among individuals older than age 65. Once a fire starts, the combination of its rapid spread and the lack of mobility of many elderly home dwellers can be a lethal combination – another compelling reason to keep sleeping quarters on the main level for people with physical limitations.
There are several safety precautions that can be taken to prevent fires from occurring. Safety experts advise checking and updating old wiring, making sure there is an operable smoke alarm on every floor of a residence and keeping anything flammable at least three feet away from space heaters.
Two recently developed products aim to help seniors prevent fire in their homes. An Akron, Ohio, company has developed Home Sense, a device that sounds a warning six minutes after an electric stove is left on and unattended and every two minutes thereafter. Eventually, the device will shut the stove off automatically.
Meanwhile, a Madison Heights, Va., company called Pyrocool – best known for the fire-fighting foam used to extinguish the smoldering embers of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks – produces a fire extinguisher that weighs 13 ounces and is as easy to use as an aerosol can. According to the company, the extinguisher is ideal for kitchen fires. A trip to a local hardware or large retail department store should yield a variety of home fire extinguishing options.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the more medications we often have to take. This is one area in which family members or other caregivers who are close by to the senior individual should become somewhat proactive – not only in finding ways to remind the person in their care which medications to take and when, but also becoming aware of potentially dangerous drug mixtures. Some of the perils facing seniors when it comes to taking medication include forgetting to take it, ingesting inappropriate doses or mixing the wrong drugs in combination.
A Providence, R.I.-based company called Medport has developed a pill organizer that reminds its user when to take a particular drug by use of beeps, voices or flashing lights. Other, similar devices are also on the market.
According to Tait, the best defense against putting an older person in danger is common sense. “For example, we asked the people we worked with to tell their doctors they wanted to take their diuretics in the morning instead of at night,” she says. “Otherwise, they’d be up half the night going to the bathroom, and for them, every time they do that at night, there’s a risk.”