According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), by the year 2020, the number of people in the United States aged 65 and older is expected to increase to 55 million. The vast majority of this age group, 87 percent, wishes to age in place, meaning they plan to stay in their own homes and communities as they grow older. If you or someone you love is a senior who wishes to age in place, what can you do to make your home safer?
Challenges Faced by Seniors
Whether out of choice or because of circumstances, many seniors already live alone—nearly 12 million, or one-third of the over-65 population, according to the Institute on Aging. As someone gets older, the likelihood that they’ll live alone increases: half of women over 75 live by themselves. If this describes you or one of your loved ones, you need to be aware of some of the challenges faced by older adults:
- Physical limitations that coincide with age can limit mobility or impact daily life.
- Memory problems can make it difficult for seniors to keep on top of household cleaning, upkeep, personal hygiene, and prescriptions.
- Chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, or heart conditions can make ordinary household tasks more difficult, and make everyday exertions more of a challenge.
- Isolation and depression can seriously affect an older adult’s quality of life.
- Financial concerns can also affect a senior’s mood and outlook.
One determining factor in whether or not a senior can age in place is the quality of care provided by family and friends. Only 7% of seniors with a readily available support network are in institutional settings. When a caregiver isn’t available, however, that number rises sharply—to 50%.
For this reason, 65% of seniors rely on loved ones, either family or friends, to provide assistance. If you’re in this situation—or if you’re a senior who wants to preserve your own independence for as long as possible—it’s never too late to implement some simple safety strategies.
The kitchen can pose a variety of safety issues, from sharp objects to hot liquids. Fortunately you can make a few non-intrusive changes to lower any potential risks:
- Clearly label on/off positions on appliances, garbage disposals, lights, etc., to avoid confusion.
- Provide easily accessible, bright lighting in work and walk areas.
- To avoid fire hazards, use appliances that have an automatic shut-off.
- Keep a fire extinguisher close by and ensure everyone in the household knows how to operate it.
- Check food supplies often and throw away any expired or spoiled items.
- Encourage the use of the microwave when possible over the use of the stove to prevent burning food and reduce fire risk.
You can also take steps that will reduce the amount of time necessary for you or your loved one to prepare meals. Meal delivery services and shared meals can reduce the need to use kitchen appliances. Sharing meals also reduces the feelings of isolation and loneliness that accompany solitary meals.
The bathroom poses a unique set of safety hazards for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 200,000 people in the United States are treated annually in emergency rooms due falls in the bathroom. What’s more, while falls are a leading cause of death among all age groups, they are particularly dangerous among the aging population. To make the bathroom safer:
- Install sturdy grab bars near the shower and toilet.
- Use a slip-resistant shower chair with a handheld showerhead.
- Use a bath-transfer bench to aid in getting in and out of the bathtub.
- Use non-slip mats on the floor and in the shower to prevent slipping on wet, slick surfaces.
- Use a raised toilet seat with handlebars to safely get up and down from the toilet.
- Make sure that the bathroom is well lit, and get in the habit of leaving the light on at night.
Taking a few proactive steps in the bathroom can pay long-term dividends. Once a senior has fallen, he or she is twice as likely to suffer a second fall, perhaps with disastrous consequences. By avoiding falls in the first place, you can help your loved one avoid future falls.
General Safety Tips
Seniors who live alone are especially at risk in times of emergency. Unexpected falls or medical events can leave them without the ability to actively seek help. Set up a buddy system to check in daily with a loved one or a friend, and consider using a medical alert system. If you or your senior plans to rely on a cell phone to call for help, make sure everyone in the household knows how to use it for this purpose. Keep landline phones well within reach on end tables and nightstands rather than high on the wall.
Seniors are also at risk for various forms of crime. Insist that they keep the doors and windows locked at all time and that they do not open the door to strangers. In addition, some criminals target the elderly to take advantage of their confusion. Discuss common confidence schemes such as phone calls that demand money for relatives who are in trouble or callers who pose as representatives from agencies like the IRS. Encourage seniors to contact you or the police immediately if they suspect anything untoward.
For seniors who live alone, taking medication on time and according to instructions is important for their long-term health and well-being. Make sure all medications are labeled correctly and easy to read. Dispose of any expired or unneeded medications to prevent confusion.
When Is It Time to Get Outside Help?
Lastly, always be honest with your loved one and with yourself about their capabilities. As people age, conditions such as dementia, reduced mobility, or muscle weakness may make living alone more difficult. If necessary, engage outside help to assist with tasks such as lawn care, housekeeping, or daily living activities. Part-time nursing or home maintenance assistance may enable your loved one to remain at home longer, be safer, and feel less lonely.