The population of the United States, as with all developed nations, is growing older and older. There are currently 48 million seniors in the United States, and this is predicted to grow by 40 million in the next 30 years.
By 2050, U.S. life expectancy will rise to 76.2 years.
Furthermore, the number of people aged 80+ is also expected to more than triple by 2050. This means that more and more of us will live to old age, and see our own relatives reach ages well past retirement age.
Understanding how to make a home as safe as possible for an older person is, therefore, imperative. Although it is not possible to fully mitigate the risk of an older person living in a home, it is certainly possible to take active steps to help an older person remain in their home safely for as long as possible.
The first stage of this is to understand the dangers that seniors face within their home. Knowing and addressing these issues will help you to address the most common causes of accidents.
Of course, each senior has different health and physical issues, and some of the following steps may be more pertinent than others.
However, this guide is designed to give a blueprint, outlining practical steps you can take to make a home safer for a senior, allowing them to live in their own home longer, and giving them and you peace of mind.
Aside from any specific hazard, one of the most important steps you can take is to discuss options for getting help in case of an emergency.
If a senior lives at home – particularly if they live alone – it is imperative that they have the means to call for help in the case of an emergency. According to the Health in Aging Foundation, you should have the following numbers written down (in large print) next to all telephones:
- Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222
- The numbers of at least two family members or friends (home and cell phone)
- The number of your healthcare provider
If possible, you should install a cordless phone in your home, as being able to take the phone around the home makes it more useful in case of an emergency.
A cell phone is also a major safety feature, so if the senior doesn’t have one, consider investing in a basic cell phone. Some companies offer senior-specific cell phones designed with larger numbers and longer battery life.
In addition to the use of the telephone, you can also consider the use of a medic alert system. These are bracelets or other devices worn on the body that allows a senior to call a centralized medical support center in the case of an emergency.
Most have the capacity for two-way communication so that the senior can explain the emergency and receive advice and guidance from the staff on call.
More advanced models contain GPS capabilities that allow for the wearer to be tracked remotely (this is especially useful in the case of seniors with dementia).
Some models even have gyroscope sensors that they can detect if the wearer has a fall without the need for the wearer to call in. This can be useful in the case of a sudden loss of consciousness.
One of the most common causes of injuries to seniors in their home is falling.
A combination of less physical strength, a decline in balance, and general frailty can combine to make a simple journey around the home a potential hazard.
The steps outlined in the emergency contact section (above) highlight how you can help a senior who may be at risk of a fall.
HOWEVER, YOU CAN ALSO TAKE STEPS TO PREVENT FALLS IN THE FIRST PLACE.
If you believe a senior may be susceptible to a fall (or has had one previously) they can talk to their healthcare provider about specific exercises that may help strengthen muscles and general stability.
If you have stairs in your home, consider installing a stair lift to help go up and down. This will prevent the dangers of tripping.
This is especially dangerous on steep basement stairs as they tend to be short and basement flooring is often concrete, which makes this area a recipe for disaster. A senior with even the best physical capabilities should avoid going down into their basement if possible.
They should never go down into the basement to inspect flooding by themselves. Water in the basement can pose serious dangers to seniors, including risks of slipping and electrocution.
You should also keep the home tidy, as loose objects in unexpected places can also be dangerous.
Use tape to hold rugs in place and keep them clear of any stairs or steps.
Using slippers indoors – ideally ones with rubber grips on the soles – will help a senior, particularly if they constantly move between slick floors and carpet.
If a senior uses a walker or a cane, encourage them to use it at all times. Not only will this improve their use and general familiarity with it (especially if it is new) but it will also stop them from using furniture to lever themselves.
The dangers of fire are compounded in the home of a senior due to their physical limitations. Being prepared and having a plan should be the first step when it comes to dealing with a house fire.
The Health in Aging Foundation recommends that, in case of a fire in your home, you don’t attempt to put it out. The first course of action should be to leave the house – along with anyone else living there – before calling 911. To that end, you should make sure you have two ways to get out of your home in case one of the ways is blocked by fire.
Check regularly that both exits are clear and accessible.
Similarly, you should also install at least one smoke alarm on every floor of the home, with one outside the area that a senior sleeps in. If the senior has trouble with hearing, you can get light-emitting alarms, or even bed and pillow vibration alarms. Regardless of the type, check the batteries once a month.
IN ORDER TO PREVENT FIRES, YOU CAN ALSO DO THE FOLLOWING:
- Don’t wear loose-fitting clothes when cooking. Don’t leave stoves unattended when you are cooking (for example, by going into the next room).
- Don’t leave candles unattended.
- Keep heaters three feet away from all other objects and don’t leave them unattended. A space heater can set a curtain on fire, for example, which would quickly lead to a major fire.
- Don’t overload electrical sockets and ensure that all electrical items are in good condition. If a wire is fraying, remove it and replace the item. If you notice faulty wiring, you may be due for an electric panel upgrade.
If the senior lives with non-senior relatives or friends, you can also look to install fire extinguishers throughout the home. Despite the advice from the Health in Aging Foundation, other individuals may be able to sufficiently fight the fire, or at least delay it so that others can exit the building safely.
Bathrooms can be dangerous for seniors. The presence of potentially slippery floors, very hot water, and the dangers of getting in and out of a tub all combine to make it a major source of hazards.
The first step to take in any home when it comes to bathroom safety is to set a limit on the thermostat so that water cannot be heated to more than 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). This will prevent individuals from getting scalded from the hot water.
If you’re unsure how to do this, speak to the manufacturer, or ask a professional to do it.
YOU SHOULD ALSO THINK ABOUT STABILITY IN THE BATHROOM. THE FOLLOWING DEVICES WILL MAKE MOVING AROUND FAR EASIER:
- Grab bars placed around the toilet and the bathtub. This provides something for a senior to hold on to, rather than the slippery surfaces around them.
- Non-slip rubber mats should be placed inside the bathtub. Again, this will help with stability and getting in and out of the tub.
- If mobility is an even bigger problem, you can look to have a safe step walk-in tub, a shower seat, or even a raised toilet seat installed. Each of these overcomes the problem of needing to climb up and over to use the bathroom.
If a senior cannot use the bathroom safely, then it may be time to consider either in-home care or moving to a residential facility.
Poisoning is a surprisingly large danger to seniors, particularly those who may be experiencing a decline in mental facilities.
There are three common types of poisoning, each with steps you can take to prevent it.
CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING
Ovens, stoves, and grills may release carbon monoxide, as can furnaces, boilers and some older or poorly-fitted heaters. Carbon monoxide is odorless and not visible, so it’s not possible to detect yourself.
You should install a carbon monoxide detector in all bedrooms, the kitchen, and the basement. You should test the batteries on all devices every six months. You can also buy carbon monoxide detectors that plug directly into an outlet, thus removing the need for batteries.
All medication should remain in its original packaging so that you don’t get them mixed up. If you struggle to read the labels, you should ask your pharmacist to use extra-large print. You should also take your medications in a room with enough light for you to see what you’re taking.
When you visit your doctor or healthcare provider, you should bring your pill bottles with you so you can confirm the correct dosages. Taking a relative to these appointments will also give you a means of staying accountable and remembering what dosages to take when.
Cleaning products are some of the most dangerous chemicals we keep in our home. Although it’s unlikely that a senior will consume a dangerous product, there is a real danger of creating a deadly gas if you mix together cleaning products.
For example, mixing bleach and ammonia creates a toxic gas that may be fatal. Wherever you keep these, whether that is in a cabinet or in the basement, it is best to lock up or remove the potentially dangerous cleaning products from the home completely.
Because of a senior’s relative frailty, they are especially vulnerable to targeting from unscrupulous individuals. Home security, therefore, becomes extra important when it comes to the case of seniors.
Seniors should take the following steps to maximize their safety:
All doors and windows should be locked at all times (i.e. including when the senior is at home). Any doors or windows that are decaying or broken should be replaced.
Strangers should not be let into the home if the senior is there alone. Install a screening system to prevent them from opening the door to unsolicited visitors. These devices can be as simple as a chain across the door or something more advanced such as a video camera.
Seniors should be cautious when talking on the telephone or online. Identity thieves may pose as a senior’s bank, healthcare provider, or other trusted organization.
As a general rule, if one of these organization calls, always ask to call them back, and look up the number yourself. If in doubt, talk through any calls with family and friends before acting.
Never give out information such as Social Security Numbers or bank/credit card information over the phone, regardless of who is calling. If you do and you feel you have been the victim of identity theft, you should call the police and your bank immediately, as they may be able to stop your card and prevent any serious consequences.
Getting older involves the potential for mental and physical decline. This can have major ramifications for how safe a home is. Often, if a senior has lived in the same home for a long time, it will not be set up adequately to meet their needs.
However, it is possible to ‘senior-proof’ a home depending on the specific requirements of a senior.
Partially this is technological, installing devices that can overcome physical limitations. The majority, however, is mental, involving the development of plans and taking discussions about the best course of action in a given scenario.
Getting older shouldn’t necessarily mean moving out of a beloved home, nor being scared of potential dangers. If you take the time to plan ahead, you can address the majority of concerns with only a small change in behavior or daily habits. This will allow a senior to keep living comfortably, safely, and with dignity in their own home.