While you may not be able to always stop a senior from falling, you can take some steps to help reduce the risk. There are many reasons for falls in the elderly, so make sure to look at the whole picture. Use these precautions take care of your loved one and their home to prevent falls:
- Begin with the bathroom. Wet surfaces (on the floor or counters) can be very dangerous. Seniors lack the balance and reaction time needed to avoid a fall. While it may seem easy to step out of a shower, an unsteady senior may slip and come crashing to the floor. To help, provide non-slip mats in the bathtub and shower. Install grab bars in strategic points around the bathroom. Towel bars are not sufficient because they will collapse under someone’s full body weight. Grab bars can be attached inside the shower stall or just above the bathtub to help a senior with lowering or standing up.
- Provide a shower seat. Seniors can be far more secure when they are seated when showering.
- Replace the shower head with a hand-held nozzle. Seniors can become more confident with showering with a nozzle. The nozzle can be easily turned away in the case of sudden water temperature changes. In addition, it can result in a much more thorough cleaning. Long-hoses are now available, which are far easier to use for someone seated in the shower.
- Stairs. Whether inside or outside the senior’s home, stairs can be major concerns. I recall my parent’s first retirement home in Victoria, British Columbia. This was a beautiful two-bedroom condo with a view of the ocean but outside access proved to be too much. I often saw my mother grabbing the handrail and pulling herself up the stairs to get inside. If a senior does have stairs, there are plenty of precautions you can take.
- Clear the stairs. Whether it is a few dropped clothes or a grandchild’s toy, anything left on the stairs can become a tripping and falling hazard.
- Differentiate between the stairs. Aging eyes may not always be able to separate one step from the next. To help, you could try replacing the carpet on each step to make the steps easier to spot. In the case of bare steps, try painting each step a different color. Other options include adding safety tape or removing carpeting and adding stair treads. All flights of stairs should also have handrails on both sides of the stairs.
- Consider a stairlift. These mechanisms can safely take a senior up or down a flight of stairs. The senior will sit in a comfortable chair without having to climb up or down the stairs. A colleague of mine used this with her father. This enabled her and her family to turn the basement into a fully-furnished suite for him and his caregiver.
- Shovel snow and chip ice off stairs in the winter. This work can be too much for a senior to handle. So why not delegate the job to a younger family caregiver or hire a neighbor? This task prevents slipping and falling outside the home.
- Tighten stair handrails. A loose handrail is of little good to anyone grabbing for it. Secure these handrails both inside and outside the senior’s home.
- Tuck away extension cords. Are there any power cords stretched across a senior’s floor? Tape them down or slide them underneath or behind furniture.
- Remove excess furniture. A more mobile senior may be able to sidestep a footstool or a coffee table but not all seniors can do this. Remove unneeded furniture to give the senior more room to maneuver and help to create a safer living environment. Also, a deep plush armchair may look comfortable but the senior may become trapped if he or she lacks the body strength necessary to push up and out of the chair.
- Get a cane or a walker. A doctor can best advise if the senior will need a mobility aid. This could be a wheelchair, a walker, a cane, or a motorized scooter. As with any mobility aid, make sure that is properly fitted for the best and easiest use. Reducing or eliminating the walker stigma that often exists may be a little more difficult to do. However, seniors may find that using a walker increases their own freedom, independence, and quality of life. Be aware that an occupational therapist needs to train the person to use these properly. For increased convenience, choose a wheelchair, walker, or scooter that can collapse and fit easily in a car’s trunk or back seat. Be mindful of the size of mobility aids. A wheelchair or walker may be too wide to fit through a senior’s doorways. A four-wheeled scooter will be better for outdoor use and will provide more stability. A three-wheeled scooter can be far more maneuverable inside the home.
- Evaluate a senior’s footwear. Shoes need to fit well and have non-slip soles. Shoes with Velcro straps can be easier to tighten or loosen. They also remove any risk of tripping over long laces. Do not choose senior’s shoes based on how easily they can be put on and taken off. I’ve heard from at least one person whose father wore loose shoes and she had to buy all new shoes for him.
- Install better, brighter lighting. Seniors cannot always see that well in a dark or shadowed room. Better, brighter lighting can help to light the way. On this same subject, assess the location of light switches. These may be out of reach for someone in a wheelchair.
- Keep a senior active. Whether through regular walking or light exercising and stretching, an active senior can remain more stable than a sedentary senior. Exercising can help prevent falls by keeping stabilizing muscles strong.
It can be hard to start a conversation about falls with elderly parents but the sooner you do, the sooner you can both take measures to avoid a fall to begin with.