For many people, a wrinkled rug corner is nothing of importance; while walking, they’ll step over it or brush it back into place. If that person trips on the rug, they may pop back up immediately and only suffer a bruised ego. But if that person is an older adult, the rug might go unnoticed, the fall could be catastrophic—and the damage to the ego might be the least of the concerns.
“In the year 2000, Americans spent $19 billion in direct medical costs due to falls,” says Michael P. Gianino, office manager of Homewatch Caregivers. Using statistics provided by Homewatch headquarters, Gianino also explains that the average hospital cost from a fall for a senior is $17,500. “We see a lot of clients who have a fall and enter the hospital, and don’t come out because they contract another disease due to their weakened immune system.” According to AARP resources, these falls happen to more than a third of adults older than 65—and a third of those who fall are left with injuries classified as moderate to severe. “You have a lot more to lose because your strength is not what it was as a youth,” Gianino says.
To help avoid falls, a simple solution is to increase in-home safety. “What seems to happen is as our clients get older, they start secluding themselves to just one or two rooms because they feel safer,” says Ryan Whittington, director of operations at Seniors Home Care. To improve a senior’s safety in the home, Whittington advises checking for cables or throw rugs that could cause falls. He also suggests that seniors verify their medication for accurate dosage.
While any used part of the home could create problems, the bathroom often is an area in need of safety improvements. “Most accidents in the home happen in the bathroom, and it’s due to water,” says Tracy Cecil, licensed nursing home administrator at Parc Provence. “And you can fix these things so easily.” She explains that not only does the bath create an equation for falls with its abundance of liquid and standard hard flooring, but possible head injuries—if someone slips on wet ceramic tile, it would be easy for them to hit their head on the tub or commode. To diminish these risks, Cecil advises installing grab bars next to the toilet, inside the shower and near the exit of the shower, as well as purchasing a slip-proof mat and a bath chair.
Home safety concerns extend to the kitchen as well, Gianino adds. To avoid problems caused by reaching, he advises removing items from the upper cabinetry. If that is not an option, invest in a safe stepping stool or a grabbing/reaching extension tool.
Gianino also explains it is preferable to have a house remodeled so that a senior with decreased mobility may live on the main floor. If your home plan is not adaptable enough to allow that, he recommends the installation of a chair lift. “It’s a little pricey, but for people with limited mobility, it’s probably worth it.”
A common worry regarding these safety changes, such as ramps or rails, is in what impact they could have on the aesthetics and resale value of the home. Whittington advises using universal design while building or refurbishing. This idea focuses on creating homes comfortable for all people, seniors included. Some universal design concepts include a gradual incline to the front door instead of stairs, and a shower without a lip to walk over upon entering. Both are functional for people of all ages and abilities, while being both easily accessible and visually unobtrusive.
While remodels can, of course, be expensive, the budget-conscious should not worry too much. “It’s minimal,” says Cecil of the monetary investment needed to safe-proof a home. “There are medical equipment supply companies all over. You’re looking at a few hundred dollars to improve safety.” Still unsure? “Have a home assessment—and many times those are free—to review the level of safety in the home,” Whittington says, adding that a professional can assess the home and find potential dangers that homeowners might have overlooked.
Other tips on how to increase safety
•Remove excess clutter, remove or secure rugs, and keep cords or cables out of the way.
•Switch lights to fluorescent bulbs, which can add additional light.
•Keep paths from the bed to the restroom clear and well-lit. Remove excess furniture that may be in the way.
•For seniors with dementia, stoves and ovens can be disconnected to prevent accidents and water heater temperatures can be changed to avoid scalding.
•Use slip-proof mats, grab bars and a bath chair to decrease the risk of falls.
•Purchase a personal emergency response system necklace to allow seniors to contact help in the case of a fall.