Home safety for the elderly

Story and photos by Jenna Cannon

  • Click here to learn more about home safety for the elderly.

A hint of lemon oil wafts through the air, giving the room a summery aroma. Sunlight sneaks in through the window, dancing across the face of the room’s occupant. Grace Pace, 86, moved into this room at her eldest daughter’s house for health reasons. Her condition has greatly improved, so she will soon be returning to her own home. But first, changes must be made to ensure her safety.

Grace Pace sitting in her room at her daughter's house in Sugarhouse.

“I am just thrilled to be able to go back home,” Pace said. “It wasn’t easy to leave, but my health just wasn’t good enough to stay there. That was our first house,” Pace said with closed eyes. She paused and seemed to be reminiscing about memories in her house. “That house is my home where we raised our six children,” she said with a smile.

Pace rented her house to her son and daughter-in-law while she was living with her daughter. During this one-year period, she underwent physical therapy. She said the results were more than she had ever hoped for.

Pace’s daughter, April Thompson, was amazed to see her mother’s recovery. “The improvement in my mom’s health is truly miraculous,” Thompson said. “She seems ten years younger. I can’t believe how much healthier she is.”

Pace is now able to return to her beloved home. To ensure her well-being, she has hired a private consultant to assist her with making her home safer. Some renovations must be made to reduce the risk of accidents related to old age.
Changing the home is a way for the elderly to stay in control of their lives.

“Aging declines the body, but people will adapt,” said Scott D. Wright, director of the Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program Center on Aging at the University of Utah.

Steve Davis is helping Pace with the renovations. He has been assisting elderly clients remodel or “elder-proof” their homes for more than 15 years. Davis said a number of changes can be made throughout the home to make it safer for the elderly.

Kitchen Safety
The kitchen can be a very dangerous area for the elderly. They may stand on a stool to try to reach items on high shelves and end up falling and getting seriously injured, Wright said.

“You need to move the most used items to lower shelves to prevent the person from climbing onto a chair or stool and falling,” Davis said.

Davis also said sinks can be difficult to adjust because of reduced motor abilities in the elderly. The sink needs to have a single-handle lever faucet so seniors can easily adjust the water and turn it on and off, he said.

Lever handles on doorknobs assist the elderly with opening doors.

Lever handles on doors are also a helpful addition to the home.

Another kitchen renovation Davis considers is replacing cupboard handles. Cupboards with handles that a hand or finger can slip through work best because they are easier to grab onto. This is especially helpful for individuals with arthritis, he said.

Bathroom Safety
“One of the highest risk areas for not only the elderly, but for people in general, is the bathroom,” Davis said. “The surfaces are wet and slippery so people are more likely to slip and fall.”

To remedy the dangers that a bathroom holds for seniors, Davis suggests putting grab bars in the bathtub and around the toilet. These bars give the person additional support to get in and out of the tub.

“Non-slip floor mats are essential in the tub and on the floor outside the tub. These provide a secure surface so that slipping doesn’t occur,” Davis said.

Pace is having grab bars installed in her shower. She also uses a shower chair for additional support. “It’s easier to sit and wash myself because I don’t have the strength to stand for that long,” she said.

An elevated toilet seat assists elderly persons in regaining a standing position.

The level of the toilet can also be a problem for the elderly. Pace has a special seat attachment that goes over her toilet to raise it up to a comfortable level for use.

“Elevating the seat makes it easier for the person to regain a standing position,” said Stanley P. Wells. Wells, a physical therapist, treats many elderly patients at his clinic in Sandy. He said his experience with these patients has made him aware of little things that help individuals with mobility.

Flooring
Flooring is an important aspect of safety for older adults. Davis recommended replacing hardwood floors or tile with low-pile carpeting. This provides traction without creating an additional hazard. “Shag carpets can also be a tripping hazard because they are springy and a person can get a toe caught in the carpet,” Davis said.

If there are area rugs, it is essential to secure them down. Davis recommended using a floor mat under the rug or tacking the rug to the floor. It is important to use rugs without any fringe because the fringe is an additional tripping hazard.

Other things to watch out for are items on the floor that could be the cause of a fall. “Things such as brooms and wastebaskets need to be put in the closet so the person doesn’t trip and get injured,” Davis said. Tripping hazards can also include laundry baskets, newspapers, decorations and ottomans.

Stairs
According to the U.S. Department of Trade and Industry, stairs cause the most serious accidents involving seniors. For this reason, it is essential to utilize the stairs cautiously.

Pace has trouble going up and down stairs because of ankle and back problems. She plans on installing a stair lift so that she can ride up and down the stairs without any risk of falling.

If the cost of a stair lift is not within an elderly person’s budget, Davis suggests moving items that are on other floors to the main floor. This allows the occupant to have access to their belongings without the risk of falling down the stairs, he said.

Other Safety Measures

Davis mentioned that harm from external forces such as intruders or natural disasters are a fear that the elderly face. Pace said she is concerned she will not be able to do anything if there is an emergency in her home.

“It is necessary to have working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors for safety,” Davis said.

Another safety measure is home security. Davis suggested installing some sort of alarm system or putting locks on all windows and doors.

Because the cost of home security systems can be daunting, seniors can consider other options. Sandy City Police officer Glen Williams offered some alternatives to installing a security system. He said putting bushes with thorns directly in front of windows could deter a criminal from entering. It also frightens potential intruders if there are motion-sensing lights around the house, he said.

Pace decided to install a security system. She said the cost of the system was in her budget and worth every dime. “You can’t put a price on feeling safe,” she said.

With all of the home improvements, Pace said she feels prepared to return home in safety. “My doctor thinks I’m in good enough health to live on my own,” she said. He recommended that she have a family member nearby in case of an emergency. He also said she should continue her physical therapy treatments.

Pace is thrilled with the prospect of moving back home. “I feel like I am young again and I’m starting an exciting new life,” she said.