Making your home safe for seniors: Preventing falls
Changes to our body that often accompany normal aging include:
- loss of eyesight and hearing
- diminished strength
- less ability to judge distances
- poor coordination
Unfortunately, all of these changes can result in falls, which are the number one cause of injury in the home for older persons. And walking is the basic daily activity which is most likely to be a problem for older adults. Almost 40% of people 85 and over and about 14% of those aged 65 to 74 have difficulty walking.
Whether using a cane or walker, restricted to a wheelchair, or able to move about more freely, an older person may have to deal with a number of hazards around the house. There are many things that can be changed in a home to make the living environment safer for an older adult. These include:
- Floors should not be highly waxed. Carpets should be tacked down. Rugs should be permanently secured so they don't slide or curl up at the edges. A tape that has adhesive on both sides, designed for use with rugs, is available from carpet and rug dealers or hardware stores. Scatter rugs should generally be eliminated.
- Hallways and other walkways should be kept cleared of clutter. A railing similar to those used on stairways might be installed on the wall of a hallway. Electrical and telephone cords should be secured (preferably with tape) out of the way -- never stretched across where someone might walk. Furniture might need to be rearranged or some of it removed to provide unobstructed pathways.
- Sharp corners of counters or furniture can be padded. For example, thick foam rubber covered with heavy-duty electrical or duct tape could be fashioned to fit over the corner of a table top and secured in place by tape under the table top so as not to mar the surface of the table. Use color to delineate edges of counter tops, stairs, platforms, porches, wall protrusions, and other hazardous areas.
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- Doors might be outlined in contrasting color with paint or tape. An elderly person with arthritis or hand weakness may have difficulty gripping or turning a doorknob. Install a level-type handle. Handles of this type, some of which fit directly over an existing knob, can be pushed with the arm, forearm, or elbow to open the door. Similarly, a lock might be changed or removed.
- Stairs are very hazardous. Make a first-floor bedroom in a seldom-used dining room or den. A bedside commode can substitute for an upstairs toilet. Investigate the various types of lifts or elevators. Keep stairways uncluttered. Steps should have rubber treads or some kind of carpeting to provide good traction. Place handrails on both sides. Paint the baseboards on the sides of the stairs with a color which contrasts with the one on the tread, or paint every other step, or even just the top or bottom step, in a contrasting color (many falls occur when individuals miss the last step, thinking they have already reached the level floor). A gate at the top of the stair might also be desirable.
- High thresholds or one-step changes in floor levels also pose hazards. Remove thresholds and patch the small space between the two floorings with mortar or plastic wood. Paint step edges a bright, visible color. Add a thick, sturdy plywood ramp at entrances or steps. The recommended slope for a ramp is one foot of ramp for each inch of step height. Ramps should be at least 32 inches wide and have bumper strips along both sides. Portable ramps can be purchased for temporary use. Non-skid strips with adhesive backing can be used on ramps or on outside steps to provide better traction. Define curb edges outdoors with color.
- Chairs should not be too high, low, or deep for the older person to sit down on easily and comfortably. If a chair is too deep, put one or more firm pillows against the back. You can cut off the legs of a very high chair. A too-low chair may be set down into large, hollowed-out wooden blocks or a wooden frame to raise the chair while still maintaining its stability. Be sure that any chair used is not "rickety." Arms on chairs are good, providing leverage for getting up and sitting down. While comfort is the first priority for older bodies, select chairs and sofas that give support in both the seat and arms.
- Lighting is very important. Rooms should be well-lighted, and glare controlled. The flicker of fluorescent lights can be disturbing to anyone suffering from depression and can cause over excitement in someone with Alzheimer's Disease. Very bright lights can over stimulate an Alzheimer's patient, while dim lighting may be calming. Nightlights can be used during the day as well as at night, especially in dark hallways. Select a nightlight with a sensor that turns the light on and off automatically. Choose low gloss floor coverings and paint.
- Use color, especially the warmer, earth-tone colors which are perceived more easily by the older eye. Oranges, yellows, reds, pinks and browns are easier to see. Blues and greens, if used at all, should be presented in intense tones to compensate for their softer or faded appearance.
- Easy to see and handle dishware with prominent rims around plates, glasses, and trays helps prevent spills and breakage. Dials on showers, dishwashers, stoves, washing machines and dryers should have clearly legible markings.
- Grab bars should be placed over the tub, in the shower and beside the toilet. In addition, be certain the surface of a tub or shower is non-skid.
NOTE: For additional help with making a house safe for an older person, refer to the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission booklet "Safety for Older Consumers - Home Safety Checklist."
Source: Making the Environment Safe for Older Adults, Glenda M. Herman, Extension Housing Specialist, N. C. Cooperative Extension Service