Preventing Harm in Your Own House
Seniors are often one wrong step away from falling in their own homes. To reduce the chance of an accident, follow these tips.
By Richard Trubo
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
Rosemary Bakker still shudders when she reflects back upon the alarming phone calls she received, telling her that her mother had fallen and fractured her hip. She got two of those frightening calls in just a two-year period. Ultimately, they changed her life.
The first time that Rosemary's mother, Arlene, fell, she was 69 years old. Her feet had become tangled in an extension cord, and she tumbled to the floor. Then two years later, she slipped on a comforter that was draping off the bed. She lay helplessly on the floor with a refractured hip for at least three hours until she could slowly maneuver to a phone to call for help.
"When we finally brought my mother home from the hospital, I noticed that the ordinary architectural details of her home -- the area carpets, the low-light levels, the door sills, the extension cords -- became barriers to her safety and independent functioning," recalls Rosemary. "Her home was a time bomb waiting to go off."
Rosemary, a certified interior designer, was so unsettled by her mother's predicament that she put her own life onto a different path.
Returning to college, she earned a graduate degree in gerontology. Today, she is director of an innovative program she founded called GEM (Gerontologic Environmental Modification) at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center's Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology. Her goal: Make homes safer and more livable for senior citizens.
Fear of Falling
With their slower reflexes, brittle bones, decreased muscle strength, and poorer vision, the elderly are often just an ill-advised step or an unexpected stumble away from disaster. Each year, more than 730,000 men and women over age 65 end up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to the stairs, bathtub, carpeting, and furniture in their own homes. Falls are a particular concern and are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among older adults. According to the CDC, about one in three adults 65 and older will fall this year, and as a result will end up in the hospital five times more frequently than for injuries from all other causes.
"Among the elderly, there are changes in the spine that alter their center of gravity," explains Elaine Gallagher, PhD, RN, professor of nursing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and founder of a program called STEPS (Seniors Task Force for Environments which Promote Safety). "With changes in muscle tone and changes in gait, they may be more prone to falls, particularly if they also have one or more chronic diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or Parkinson's disease."
Fortunately, many accidents around the home are preventable if steps are taken to minimize the hazards. "As you get very old and very frail, some degree of falling may be inevitable, and it may be impossible to prevent all falls," says Gallagher. "But a number of them can be prevented."
Home Safety Checklist
To reduce the risk of accidents in your (or your elderly relative's) home, here are some steps worth taking:
Help on the Way
To minimize your accident risks, stay as physically fit as possible. Movements like tai chi (an ancient Chinese exercise program) improve coordination and balance, and classes are held in many senior citizen centers.
When upgrading your home or apartment with safety features, "Medicare will pay for very little of it," says Bakker. "The Medicare program considers most of these environment retrofits to be non-medical in nature, but rather as 'convenience items.'"
If you need help paying for bathtub grab bars or other improvements, contact the department of aging in your city or county, and ask if you qualify for low-cost or no-cost home-modification services. Also, some fire departments will come to your home to conduct an assessment of possible hazards.
Originally published Sept. 30, 2002.
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