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How to Make a Home Safe for the Elderly

By Peter Sedesse MD

There are three major factors that need to be taken into account while trying to make a home safe for the elderly.  These involve changes to the body that may occur as we age, in particular to mobility, eyesight and memory. In many individuals, as we age, our sense of balance and flexibility is diminished which can result in falls.  Sometimes eyesight begins to deteriorate, which can result in falls or bruises.  Finally, in some, there can be sporadic moments of forgetfulness, which can result in dangerous situations like house fires.

While attempting to make a home as safe as possible for an elderly person, it is important to put yourself in that individualīs situation and pay attention to the activities they are most likely to be doing and in particular to the layout of the house.  This is especially true in homes that have a closed kitchen that is out of view of the living room.  In this situation, the risk of a kitchen fire is significantly increased if  smoke does not notify the individual very early of a problem.

One of the most common accidents among the elderly is falls.  These occur both because of decreased balance and mobility, but also because of poor eyesight.  Obviously stairways are of greatest concern, but special attention should also be paid to the most frequent routes walked by the individual.

The most obvious way to avoid problems with stairways is to keep the person living on one floor.  Possibly by finding a suitable room that can be converted to a bedroom.  If that canīt be accomplished, make sure sturdy handrails are available and they extend all the way to the top and bottom of the stairway.

All traveled parts of the house should contain bright lighting, this is especially important in stairways and in parts of the house that are frequently visited by the elderly person.  Make sure light switches are conveniently located on both sides of the light source if the person has to travel back and forth.  This is especially important for stairways where a switch should be located at the top and bottom of the stairs.  Also, remember that what might appear to have decent lighting for you may not be enough for a person with poor eyesight.  If you are unsure, test it with sunglasses on.

The entire house, especially stairwells should remain clutter free.  Any small furniture used for decoration should be against and outside wall of the room and not in a frequent pathway.  Pay special attention to throw-rugs or other small floor coverings, these are frequently the cause of falls.  It is also important to try to remove from the home any small furniture item that is frequently moved.  Falls can happen when a person is not expecting a piece of furniture to be where it is.

In the kitchen, the most important things are a fire alarm and small extinguisher.  Whenever possible, try to discourage oven, or even stove top cooking of items with long cook times.  Encourage the proper use of a microwave and make sure any flammable items like paper towels are located away from the stove.  Finally, purchase appliances like coffee-makers that have an auto-shutoff feature.

In the bedroom, make sure there is a light source that is accessible while still in bed.  Also make sure there is a phone along side the bed.  Warn against smoking in bed as well as using candles in the bedroom.

The bathroom is one of the most dangerous rooms in the house.  Make sure mats are located in the bathtub along with handrails.  Try to ensure that any flooring that may become wet does not become slippery if wet.  If possible, purchase a bathtub with a low step-in height, as most falls occur when entering or exiting the bathtub.

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