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Home Safety Tips for the Elderly

Tips for Preventing Accidents

Safety in the home is an important concern for older adults. Poor eyesight and hearing, arthritis, dementia and side effects from medications are all factors that can make a simple trip to the kitchen a potentially dangerous undertaking.

Due to the fact that injuries to older adults are more severe because of brittle bones and thin skin, caution should be used at all times, particularly when someone is home alone. Falls are the most common cause of fatal injury to the aged. Many accidents can be prevented by practicing good safety habits and staying alert — even when performing the most mundane tasks. Here are some tips to help prevent accidents.

In the Kitchen

  • Turn pan handles away from other burners and the edge of the stove.
  • Avoid wearing clothes with long, loose sleeves when cooking.
  • Keep fire-resistant potholders near the stove.
  • Keep pan lids near your stove. If a small grease fire starts, carefully slide a large lid or larger pan over the pan to smother the flames and turn off the burner. Keep the pan covered until everything is completely cooled off. Lifting the lid to peek will let oxygen in and the fire may reignite. Never pour water on a grease fire or try to carry the pan outside or to the sink.
  • Disconnect small appliances when you’re not using them.
  • Clear counter tops and work areas of all unnecessary objects.
  • Keep drawers and cupboards closed.
  • Use kitchen appliances with thermostats and timers; the signal lights and buzzers are easier for the elderly to use.
  • Clearly mark the “off” position on stoves and ranges so a person with diminished eyesight can easily see if the element is turned off.
  • Move frequently used items to chest level to avoid stepping onto stools or chairs to reach objects.
  • Wipe up grease or liquid spills immediately.
  • Put all stored utensils, dry and canned foods at a convenient height.
  • Store hazardous household agents out of the reach of children and confused adults.
  • Use a nonslip mat in the sink area to soak up spilled water.
  • Never leave food that is cooking unattended.
  • Keep towels, food packaging, potholders and other clutter away from burners.
  • Use fireproof curtains on windows near the stove.

In the Bathroom

  • Use a nonskid mat or strips on the standing area of the tub or shower.
  • Install grab bars on the walls of the bathtub and toilet.
  • Towel bars and the soap dish in the shower stall should not be used as grab bars.
  • Set the water heater thermostat at 110 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to prevent scalding.
  • Replace bar soap with liquid soap in plastic pumps. Or, purchase soap on a string or tie a bar of soap in the foot area of a clean nylon stocking; this makes the soap easier to pick up if it is dropped.
  • Avoid using bath oils or lotions in the bathtub because they could cause someone to slip.
  • Use a non-skid mat on the floor where you exit the tub/shower.
  • Keep medications out of the reach of children and confused adults.
  • Obtain a raised toilet seat to increase the height of the toilet.
  • Have sufficient, accessible light. Leave a night light on while you are sleeping.
  • Use a bath bench to eliminate the need to stand in the shower or sit on the floor of the tub.
  • Use a hand-held shower hose to make bathing easier.
  • Dry off before getting out of the tub. If your feet and the floor are dry, it reduces your risk of slipping when you step out.

In the Bedroom

  • Have adequate and accessible lighting available.
  • Keep a sturdy nightstand next to the bed so glasses and other personal items are within reach.
  • Keep the pathway from the bed to the bathroom clear.
  • Make sure the bed is the appropriate height to allow for safe transfers.

In Living Areas

  • Arrange furniture and other objects so they are not in the way.
  • Couches and chairs should be at the proper height to get into and out of easily.
  • Move low-lying objects such as coffee tables, step stools, etc. that may present a tripping hazard.
  • Position telephones so they are accessible. Be sure the phone cord is not lying across a walkway because it could cause someone to trip.
  • Use strong chairs with armrests that will provide support during transfers.

Outside Your Home

  • Pay attention to the surface you are walking on. Be alert for wet or dry leaves, grass and other areas which may be slippery.
  • When you get out of a car, test the condition of the ground for wetness before standing up and walking.
  • Visually mark concrete or wooden edges with non-slip colored tape to avoid tripping.
  • Keep outdoor steps and walkways in good condition and clear of debris.

Proper Lighting

  • Always turn lights on before going into a room.
  • Have light switches at the top and bottom of stairways and at each end of a hallway.
  • Replace burned-out bulbs immediately and make sure to use a bulb with the correct power (wattage).
  • Use night lights in the hallways and bathroom.
  • Make sure you can safely access lamps and light switches.
  • Make sure indoor and outdoor walkways are properly lit, especially at night.
  • Have adequate lighting on the stairs.

Walkways and Stairways

  • Carpeting should be securely fastened down. Tack down edges of carpets and rugs.
  • Remove throw rugs that bunch up or slide, use skid-resistant rugs.
  • Keep walkways clear of clutter, especially electrical and telephone cords.
  • Place bright, contrasting colored tape on the top and bottom of steps of stairways.
  • Install and use secure handrails along the full length of both sides of stairways and hallways.
  • Place slip-resistant material on bare stairs.
  • Be alert to pets and children who can pop up in front of or behind you.

Taking Medications

  • Medicines that are strong enough to cure you can also be strong enough to hurt you if they aren’t used right. Make sure you have enough light so you can see what medicine you are taking and ensure that you are taking the right dosage.
  • Take medicine in the exact amount and on the same schedule as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Always ask your doctor about the right way to take any medicine before you start using it.
  • Tell your doctor about past problems you have had with medicines, such as rashes, indigestion, dizziness, or a lack of appetite.
  • Keep a daily record of all the medications, vitamins and supplements that you take. Include prescription and over the counter drugs. Note the name of each medicine, the doctor who prescribed it, the amount you take, and the times of day you take it. Keep a copy in your medicine cabinet and one in your wallet or purse.
  • Review your medication record with the doctor at every visit and whenever your doctor prescribes new medicine. Your doctor often gets new information about medicines that might be important to you.
  • Make sure you can read and understand the medication's name and the directions on the container. If the label is hard to read, ask your pharmacist to use large type.
  • Throw medicine away if it has passed the expiration date. You can flush pills down the toilet and wash liquids down your kitchen sink.

Things you should NOT do when taking medicines

  • DO NOT stop taking a prescription medication unless your doctor says it’s okay – even if you are feeling better.
  • DO NOT take more or less than the prescribed amount of any medicine.
  • DO NOT mix alcohol and medicine unless your doctor says it’s okay. Some medications may not work well or may make you sick if taken with alcohol.
  • DO NOT take medicines prescribed for another person or give yours to someone else.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Wear light-colored clothing, put reflector tape on your shoes and carry a flashlight when going out at night.
  • Install a telephone within easy reach in sleeping areas and have emergency phone numbers posted nearby in large print.
  • Wear shoes that are flexible and easily molded to the feet. House slippers should have soles that don’t have too much grip because it could “grab” carpeting and cause a fall. Shoes with backs are best.
  • Many older people trap themselves behind multiple door locks that are hard to open, especially in an emergency. Install one good lock that can be opened easily from the inside.
  • Have a daily check-in time with a friend, family member or neighbor by phone. This will alert someone if there is a problem and you are unable to answer the phone.
  • Always try to see who is at the door before opening it. Look through a peephole or a safe window. Ask any stranger who he or she is, what organization he or she represents and ask them to show their organizational identification. Keep the door locked if you are uneasy.
  • Make sure that locks, doors, and windows are strong and cannot be broken easily. Ask the police department to send an officer to your home to suggest changes that could improve your security.
  • Use a cane or walker if you need one.
  • Do not store bleaches, detergents, bug sprays and other chemicals on a high shelf. They may spill and get into your eyes when you look up to reach for the containers.
  • In case of an emergency, your house number should be prominently displayed with large numbers in a contrasting color from the background so your address can be seen easily from the road.
  • Carry a cordless phone, cell phone or emergency medical alert button with you at all times. Always use a hands-free carrying case.
  • If possible, people with mobility disabilities should sleep on the first floor near a door leading directly to the outside. This would help in case of a fire or other emergency.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy and know how to use it.
  • Install a smoke alarm that has been approved by an independent testing laboratory. For the hearing impaired, special alarms with flashing strobe lights and a sonic alarm should be installed. There are also alarms with lower-pitched alarm sounds that may be easier for hearing-impaired people to hear.
  • Smoke alarms should be installed on each level of your home. The National Fire Prevention Association recommends that you sleep with bedroom doors closed to slow the spread of smoke and fumes in case a of fire. If bedroom doors are closed, install interconnected alarms inside sleeping areas. Whether bedroom doors are open or closed, everyone should be able to hear a smoke alarm if it goes off.
  • Improperly stored materials such as hair spray, nail polish, deodorants, or other personal care products, and aerosol cans should never be used near a heat source or open flame. All aerosol cans explode if exposed to high heat.
  • Gasoline vapors can be ignited by a tiny spark. If you have to store gasoline in your home, make sure it is in containers designed and approved for that purpose. Refuel gas-powered machines out in the open and away from foliage and buildings.

The most important thing to remember about safety is to be aware of your surroundings and stay alert. For more information about safety, talk with your physician, call your local fire or police station or check with other resources that can provide you with more useful tips such as:

  • City and County of Honolulu, Elderly Affairs Division (EAD) Information and Referral – 523-4545
  • State of Hawaii, Executive Office on Aging (EOA) – 586-0100, or http://health.hawaii.gov/eoa/
  • National Fire Protection Association – www.nfpa.org
  • National Institute on Aging – www.nih.gov/nia/

Basic Emergency Items for Seniors

Keep these items in a clearly labeled container so they can be easily found and used in case of an emergency. A battery-powered radio – make sure to note which stations provide information in case of a disaster.

  • Two battery or solar-powered flashlights. There are also flashlights that can be powered with hand cranks so batteries are not necessary. Make sure the light is bright enough to be useful.
  • Extra batteries for hearing aids, flashlights and radios.
  • A first-aid kit – regularly check the contents of your kit to ensure there are no expired ointments or other items and make sure its contents are appropriate for the elderly person.
  • An extra pair of glasses.
  • Extra equipment or medical supplies such as wheelchair batteries or oxygen.
  • Note the serial number, make and style of medical devices such as pacemakers.
  • Medical insurance and Medicare cards.
  • Medical alert wallet card or bracelet - something that identifies hidden medical conditions if an elderly person can’t talk.
  • A list of prescription medications and dosage amounts.
  • A list of the names and phone numbers of physicians and emergency contacts.

Physicians Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST)

Another item to consider keeping is a Physicians Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) document. This is a two-page document of a physician’s order that gives patients more control over their end-of-life care. It specifies the types of treatments that a patient wishes to receive towards the end of life. The POLST form documents those decisions in a clear manner and can be quickly understood by all providers, including first responders and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel.

The POLST form should be kept in an easily accessible location such as on the refrigerator or bedside table, in a medicine cabinet or next to a specific door such as the bedroom or front door.

The POLST does not replace an Advance Directive, which is a different document that provides details about an individual’s wishes and treatment preferences.

A copy of the POLST form can be downloaded from www.kokuamau.org or call 808-585-9977. That website also has more information about the purpose, use and completion of a POLST.