One of the greatest sources of anxiety for the sandwich generation is the possibility their elderly parent will have an accident at home. Here are some suggestions for spotting hazards in the home and minimizing them.
There are many sources of risk for the elderly who choose to stay in their home in order to “age in place”. This article focuses on the topic of “falls” since it is the most common risk. The main categories of risk for falls include the home environment, your parent’s physical condition, clothing and medication.
1. The Home Environment
Leading this category is poor lighting. Since many elderly people have issues with their eyesight, dim or minimal lighting can lead to accidental falls. This is especially true for the overnight period when they need to visit the washroom one or more times. Strategically placed night lights, motion-detector lights and/or brighter lights will help ensure their entire path is visible. One elderly lady, I worked with kept a “torch” (large flashlight) next to her bed so she could take a light with her during the night. You may wish to experiment with the strength of the bulbs to find out what your parent considers “dim” or “bright”. Your perception of adequate lighting may be completely different from theirs.
Decorating trends change over time and the current trend for dark, hardwood flooring causes issues for the elderly, usually because of their declining vision. The floor itself may not be a problem but when it is combined with steps, stairs or *transition pieces between rooms there is a greater likelihood of falls.
*A “transition piece” is a short section of wood-trim that overlaps the flooring between two rooms, usually in the doorway. It is intended to make the joint less obvious. However, transition pieces are often bulky, creating a bump on the floor.
Items that were attractive, decorative pieces in the home in the past can gradually turn into trip hazards. The most common ones are “scatter rugs” and loose carpets because they are not secured to the flooring underneath. They have a loose edge that curls as it ages, making it easy to trip and fall. Slip hazards include polished flooring and sloped/polished driveway surfaces. One of our neighbours* had a patterned concrete surface that was sprayed annually to maintain the concrete. Unfortunately, the sprayed coating made the surface so slippery that visitors would have to carefully walk along the edge of the driveway to maintain their footing. This type of driveway would be very risky for a senior. Slippery bathtubs and showers are another cause of falls. Adding “grab bars” or a shower bench to their bathroom will help reduce the risks of slipping and falling.
Stairs are another trip hazard, especially when combined with other factors such as poor lighting, missing or loose handrails, and inconsistent riser height. We used to have a very deep, single step at the front entrance to our last home. I replaced it with a double step so everyone, especially elderly family members, would be able to enter safely. Circular staircases are another navigation challenge for seniors due to the disorienting effect of moving in two directions at the same time – i.e. moving downward while turning. Old-style circular staircases with uneven step depth are even worse. (Narrow on the inside of the curve and wide on the outside.) That is why many seniors choose to downsize to a single-level residence when they move.
An elderly parent’s physical condition is another risk source for falls. Any issues with eyesight, balance or mobility can contribute to a serious fall requiring medical attention. It is possible that an “assistive device” such as a cane or walker may help avoid risks. Since we all age gradually, incremental changes in a parent’s health can be easily missed. It is not uncommon to speak with a senior and learn that they have not seen a doctor for many years. Being proactive by arranging a physical exam for your parent may help in getting an up-to-date assessment of their ability to manage on their own.
It is surprising how simple things such as slippery footwear, tight-fitting night clothing or poor-fitting clothing that drags on the floor can contribute to falls. An elderly person I know made a trip to her washroom in the middle of the night, fell and broke her hip because she couldn’t manipulate some tight leggings. Taking the time for a complete review of the clothing your parent uses in the course of a typical day can go a long way to highlighting any wardrobe changes that should be made.
The last category of influences on fall risks is medication. Any side effects from prescription and non-prescription drugs that contribute to drowsiness or dizziness need to be considered when assessing how much risk your parent faces in their current environment. Many grown children in the same situation have arranged home modifications to alleviate the risk. One example is to place a bed for your parent on the main floor of the home if the property is a multi-level home. This reduces the need for stairs for day-to-day living.
If you feel that your parent’s situation is “an accident waiting to happen”, it would be best to control the controllable and take action as soon as possible to minimize the risk of your parent falling and causing injury. If you are getting some resistance from your parent in making any of these suggestions, please feel comfortable to contact me for suggestions regarding professionals who can conduct an assessment for your family.
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Unless otherwise credited, all posts are happily authored with a quill pen …
Paul Ferri, Broker, ASA (Accredited Senior Agent)
RE/MAX Unique Inc. Brokerage*, Toronto, Canada
*Each office independently owned and operated