Visiting with senior loved ones is what makes the holidays special, and it is often the only time of the year we spend extended time in their homes. This is a great opportunity to not only spend time with them but to look more closely at how they are doing in their environment and to make sure their home is safe and free from fall risks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one out of four older people falls each year, and one in five falls causes serious injury. The statistics are alarming, but the good news is that you can help your loved one make a few adjustments to make their home safer. Below are some common hazards to look for.
The walkways to many homes are cracked or uneven, which is a risk factor for falls. Make sure the pathway is cleared and easy to see, make sure someone shovels show in the winter and sweep leaves in the fall. Stairs can be tricky to maneuver as well. If stairs are difficult for them to navigate, consider adding a ramp that leads to their door. Be sure the stairs have sturdy handrails on each side. Eliminate thresholds between entryways, as they can be tricky for someone with mobility issues and are a common tripping hazard.
The easiest thing you can do is remove clutter (especially on the floor) to allow sufficient space for a loved one who may be using an assistive device to maneuver around rooms. Remove or tape down all cords. Rugs may look nice but they are a leading tripping hazard. Remove accent rugs, and in areas like the entryway where you must have mats, make sure they are secure with nonslip material.
Seniors need more light, particularly in notoriously dim areas such as entryways, hallways and staircases. If your loved one has soft lightbulbs, replace them with brighter or higher wattage ones and add motion sensor lights to bathrooms. Adding night lights throughout their home is an easy addition that helps them see better, especially at night or on darker winter days. Be sure night lights are amber colored to avoid interrupting the sleep cycle.
Ideally, your senior parent doesn’t have to navigate stairs, but if they do, make the space safer by having railings on both sides. Railings should be at least 1.5 inches in diameter to accommodate seniors with limited dexterity and aging grips. What's more, help each stair be more visible by using contrast strips (available at your local hardware store). If stairs are carpeted, be sure to inspect and secure any loose carpet.
Make bathrooms safer by adding wellplaced grab bars next to the toilet and in bathing spaces. In the shower or tub, add nonslip strips and a shower seat for comfort and ease of use. Consider adding a handheld, adjustable height shower head. Check the toilet height and purchase a riser if needed for ease of getting up and down.
One-level living is ideal so, if possible, move your loved one to a room on the main floor with easy access to the bathroom, kitchen and living room. Furniture, including the bed and chairs, should be at a good height (neither too low nor too high) to be easily used. Knobs can be difficult, so consider replacing round door handles with lever handles.
In addition to these tips, I recommend carefully observing your loved one as they maneuver their home and noticing challenges such as the height of light switches, or placement of appliances like a toaster or microwave ovens. Have a conversation with your loved one about their comfort and safety and solve challenges together. Consider giving the gift of safety and convenience in the form of a grabber for retrieving objects from the floor, a bag or tray for their walker, a pretty new hallway rug with safe backing, or motion sensor night lights. What’s most important is enjoying your visit to the fullest and spending valuable time together.