December 20, 2010

Retirement at Home: Making it Safe

If  you are are a regular reader, you know my parents have been struggling with some of the ravages of age-related health problems for the past few years. My mom finally lost the battle to all her challenges and passed away a little over a week ago. Now, our family must focus our energy on making sure my dad stays safe as he adjusts to being alone for the first time in 63 years. With no one living with him, falls or even a simple cold could prove devastating. I live only 30 minutes away and visit once or twice a week, but there is still concern.

One thing the events of the last year or two have made clear is the importance of having a safe home environment. Statistics show that one in 3 people over 65 will fall and most suffer some type of injury. Among this age group falls are the leading cause of injury death. So far my wife and I haven't experienced any of these issues of falls or tripping, or difficulty in getting in and out of the shower. But, those days will come. So, what can we do to make our present home safer and more age-friendly?

I have found some excellent resources that provide common-sense steps anyone can take. If the goal is to remain in your home and independent for as long as possible, here are things you could begin to implement. Some are rather expensive, but nothing compared to an extended stay in a hospital or care facility.

  • Walk-In Tubs: Walk-In Tubs are not cheap but one of the first major modifications to consider. They are safe, easy to use and allow anyone the independence of giving themselves a bath. Walk-in tubs have slip resistant floors and built-in hand grips. They are much safer then a standard bath tub or shower. While you are modifying the bathroom install a raised toilet seat with handles. Thousands are hurt each year by attempting to use a toilet that is too low for an aging body to use safely.
  • Throw rugs. Especially if placed over wood floors or tile, small rugs can easily cause one to trip or slip. Plastic mats placed by doors to prevent mud or snow from being tracked into the house are an accident waiting to happen. For wall-to-wall carpeting, the lower the nap the better.
  • Levered Handles: Levered handles are much easier to use than standard doorknobs. Instead of having to turn a knob, levered handles allow a door to open by merely pushing the handle down. Arthritis can make twisting a knob quite difficult. With a lever, one push down and the door opens.
  • Stair Railings: If there are stairs in your home, it is a good idea to have additional hand railings installed. Usually there is a railing on only one side of the staircase. Make sure all railings extend the full length of the stairs. Place non skid tape strips, or non skid reflective strips on stair risers to help prevent any sliding or falling on the stair case.
  • Widened Door Openings: Widened door openings are essential for anyone who uses a walker or wheelchair. Housing with narrow doorways or hallways can essentially trap someone in a wheelchair in just a few areas of the home.
  • Sinks and cabinets: Sinks are another modification that can make life much easier for seniors. With levered faucets and lowered counter surfaces they can be used without as much effort. Check that there is enough room between the floor and bottom of the sink to allow wheelchair access. The same approach applies to cabinets in the bathroom or kitchen. If possible, lower them so reaching isn't necessary.
  • Extensions cords. Make sure those wires from lamps, fans, or stereos are not crossing a path through a room or sticking out from behind the couch. Many older homes may not have GFI (ground fault interrupted) electrical outlets in bathrooms and kitchens.That oversight can kill. Replacement outlets are quite affordable.
  • Brighter Lighting. As we age our eyesight declines. Brighter light is required for all tasks, as well as reading and safely moving through a room. Install extra lamps (though watch out for excessive cords..see above) or wall lamps. Use brighter bulbs where possible. 
  • Remove unnecessary clutter. It is simply amazing the amount of stuff we accumulate if we live in a house for any number of years. You don't even have to have a pack rat-type personality to have a dangerous amount of clutter. In addition to being a tripping hazard, fire is another concern as we age. Our ability to quickly exit a burning home is diminished if things are cluttered. Also consider the placement of furniture. If someone is using a wheelchair or a walker the general guideline is at least 5 feet between any two pieces of furniture.

You may be thinking that none of this applies to you yet. That may be true, but you are only one accident away. How about a relative or friend? Do you know someone else who could benefit from some of these safety fixes?

There are probably another dozen suggestions that I could have added, but I want to encourage you to jump in now with your thoughts. What else could make a house safer? What modifications will allow us to stay in our homes as long as possible, as independent as we'd to like be, and still be safe? Your satisfying retirement may depend on it.

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  1. Those are good suggestions and ones that are good thoughts for younger old folks who still consider themselves pretty capable to do before they need them.

  2. Hi Ralph,

    Sometimes it is hard to get motivated to do these kinds of modifications. After all, there is always tomorrow. But, as you noted doing them before they are needed is the smart way to proceed.

  3. Bob.

    My sympathy on your mom's passing. I knew from a prior post she was getting closer to a transition to Greater Glory. My wonderful mother in law just passed away December 9.

    As for home safety and fall prevention, you are right on to raise awareness of this issue. As you note, falls are a major issue; and while there is a lot that can be done to try and prevent most falls, in the end no environment is fail safe and sometimes events simply occur. So we do the best we can and accept what life brings us.

    Best regards.

  4. Thank you for your kind thoughts. My sympathies to you and your wife on her Mom's death. We now share something in common. My Mom died on December 9th, too.

    Until I did the research for the this post I didn't realize how prevalent falls were among older folks. One in three is an alarming number, and often highly preventable. But, as you note we do the best we can and accept what comes.

  5. I am sorry for both of your losses.

    WE are going to replace bathroom doors with pocket doors. We will have a 0 step shower that one can roll a wheel chair in. One toile in the house has arms- but there will be grab bars near the other one. We had an old age preview when my husband had hip surgery go very wrong!
    When we redo the kitchen counter we will include a low counter at the end of the island. Some people will see it as a place for children to sit- but we full intend for it to be a place where we can enjoy cooking for a long time.
    My mom insists on keeping the small rugs I brought her from the middle east. We found these cool non skid mats and attached them to the back. They are hard to lift. I still worry about them.

    Thank you for the important reminders.

  6. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Janette.

    You are taking very proactive steps to anticipate and prevent problems. Making your mom's rugs safer is a very important thing to do.

    Since we hope to stay in our present home for another 5-7 years (until the housing market recovers) we are taking steps to keep us safer. Even so, I find myself tripping over the kitchen throw rug too often.

  7. These are very safe suggestions especially if a person or couple has a hard time getting around their home.

  8. Handicapped Tubs provide luxury for people with mobility issues. A handicap tub can help in reducing the risk of injury when bathing. People who suffer from arthritis find it hard to step over the side of a regular bathtub, and may have trouble rising from a seated position in the tub as well. Stroke victims, anyone with mobility problems, balance problems, or any sort of lower extremity disability have found walk-in bathtubs a godsend.

  9. Thanks for the information and the link to your web site.

    Note: this comment is from a company that sells specialized tubs. If you are in the market, click the "Tubs" name above to learn more. I am posting this comment as a service. I do not know anything about this company and am not endorsing their products. But, specialized bath tubs are a valid consideration for those with mobility issues.


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