Most older adults are interested in aging at home for as long as possible. It is possible, but the key to staying at home safely is to plan ahead. When you are younger, living at home is par for the course as many tend to be more physically and mentally able to do so. Aging will always present some challenges, but so long as you are prepared and remain flexible to address any upcoming changes, you can live at home for a long time.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Should You Look for in a Safe Living Environment for an Aging Adult?
- Tips for Keeping Yourself or an Aging Parent Safe at Home
Staying healthy and active is the best way to prevent the need for caregivers or wholesale changes to your home. But even with some issues like mobility problems, increasingly poor eyesight, and slow recovery from accidents or falls, your house can be changed to help you or your loved ones get around safely and securely. Here are some tips to get started.
What Should You Look for in a Safe Living Environment for an Aging Adult?
If you were building a new home, you could consider the universal design concept of construction. The idea behind universal design is that homes should be constructed to accommodate anyone’s needs — whether they have a disability or not. Features in a house with universal design can include but are not limited to barrierless entries, wide doorways, hallways, accessible showers, lower countertops, and grab bars.
Unless you are in a condo or single level living home, chances are that most universal design mainstays will be missing. Many homes require that safety features be added, and some homes are more challenging and expensive than others to add said features.
Tips for Keeping Yourself or an Aging Parent Safe at Home
Part of the process of determining home safety is to weigh the cost benefit ratio of spending a lot of money to make a home accessible. It might make more sense to consider moving to a home, condo, or townhouse that won’t require as much remodeling. Many 55+ senior living communities have built-in safety features like grab bars and wide doorways. If your home is multi-level and you want to stay, there are some basic safety ideas worth considering.
1. Start early
It can be hard to imagine disability before it happens but think of it this way. You may have had the experience of breaking your wrist, ankle, or another bone. Anyone can have an accident that suddenly throws everything into disarray. Tasks like bathing or cooking are now very challenging. If you are an older adult who lives alone, you may have to get some help in the home while you recover.
It isn’t necessary to do a wholesale remodel of a home to accommodate a future disability, but starting early to make some reasonable changes can give you a head start. If you wait until an accident, injury, or decline happens before making changes, it can become very stressful. Waiting two weeks for a contractor when you need the work done right away may not be feasible due to your condition.
2. Evaluate your home
Evaluating potential safety issues can give you an idea of what to work on and what you can plan to fix later. When caring for aging parents, part of the process will involve assigning a cost to safety modifications.
For example, if you or your parent’s home features several sets of stairs and several floors, you may consider a stair glide system that can be expensive to install. Make a list of low tech, inexpensive safety features that you can add now. Then move on to items that may require a remodel if you anticipate a need later.
3. Minimize the risk of falls
Falls are the leading cause of disability in older adults. While the risk of falling cannot be eliminated, it can be minimized.
According to the National Council on Aging, “Falls result in more than 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency departments annually, including over 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths.” These cost-effective changes to the home can have a significant impact on fall prevention.
Watch the bathroom
The bathroom is a potential hazard, especially if you are dealing with an injury. Install grab bars in the shower and have a shower chair handy. If you have a tub shower, consider changing to a walk-in shower. Imagine trying to step into a tub when you are hurt. Make sure there is adequate lighting in the bathroom for nighttime visits.
Get rid of clutter
Clutter and throw rugs are safety hazards. Dealing with clutter can be a challenge, especially for an older parent who may not have the desire or ability to clean things up.
Offer to help and tackle things slowly. Re-arrange furniture if necessary to create clear pathways to other parts of the house. Tape down or eliminate throw rugs if you can.
Get a medical evaluation
If you or your parent has already had a fall, there might be a medical reason. Ask for a complete evaluation to rule out any medication issues, eyesight problems, or other medical problems.
4. Look at stairs
Stairs seem to be everywhere. If you or your parent bought your home years ago, you probably have some sets of stairs. Some older homes are split level, requiring one or more sets of stairs to get to the main living area, bedrooms, laundry, or bathroom.
Most stairways can accommodate chair lifts but they can be costly to install. For now, make sure there are railings wherever necessary, especially on the outside stairs leading up to the house.
If the washer and dryer are in the basement, consider moving them up to the main level if you can.
5. Stay on top of home maintenance
Living in your own home will always involve ongoing maintenance tasks, some of which can create safety issues. Often, some aging adults may avoid issues like aging electrical and plumbing systems, roofing problems, or landscape maintenance. That being said, not getting on the roof is a smart decision.
If you are living alone as an aging adult, consider a professional home inspection to identify home safety issues. Hire professionals to take care of these problems and delegate other tasks to family members or hire them out. Shoveling snow in the winter is not something an older adult should be doing.
6. Look at emergency response systems
An emergency response system (ERS) can mean the difference between life and death. If you have a parent with dementia, chronic medical conditions, or is a fall risk, ERS is a critical safety feature.
An ERS can go around your neck or on your wrist, and they are very sophisticated. Most of these systems now have fall detection that if not turned off after a fall, it will automatically call 911 or a family member. Many devices also have GPS systems to keep track of an elder who has memory problems and wanders.
7. Watch the doorways
What happens if you or your parent ends up using a wheelchair? Many older homes do not have the required doorway width of 32 inches for a wheelchair to pass through. Take a look and measure your doorways. Is it possible to remove the doors to create enough space for a wheelchair to pass through? If not, the doorways will have to be remodeled.
8. Try out medication management
Most people don’t think about medication management as a home safety issue for older adults. For an older adult who takes several medications, management can be complicated.
There can be significant consequences of medication mismanagement, including hospitalization. Evaluate medications by ensuring that there is a system in places, like a weekly or monthly medication box. Check for expired or discontinued medications. Dispose of expired medications properly, so there is no confusion. If necessary, hire a nurse to set up medications.
9. Consider home care
Home care, whether in the form of temporary home health or private caregivers can provide a safety net. Home health can help you or your parent recover from an illness or accident by providing nursing, physical, and occupational therapy. Occupational therapists can also do a home safety evaluation and give you tips on accessibility modifications.
Home care caregivers are a valuable resource for older adults who want to age safely in place. Depending on state requirements, caregivers can give medication reminders, cook, shop, assist with bathing and hygiene and be the ears and ears for potential trouble spots.
10. Know when to throw in the towel
At some point, due to cost or increasing complexity of care, it might be time to consider another long-term care option. Moving may not be an easy decision to make, especially when you or your parent prefer staying at home. Some things to consider when making the decision:
- Is caregiver burnout too high? If the family is providing caregiving for a parent, it might be an unsustainable cost for the family and can cause concern about providing safe care.
- The cost of private caregivers can exceed the cost of assisted living. Also, your state may not allow caregivers to perform some necessary tasks for you or your parent to remain at home.
- Medical instability requires 24-hour nursing availability.
- The cost of remodeling the home is not feasible.
Home Safety for Older Adults
Again, for many people, aging at home is the ideal scenario. With enough planning, and following our tips here, it is possible. It is never too early to start thinking about it. Tackle what you can and keep an eye on modifications for the future that will keep you safe.
- “Falls Prevention Facts.” National Council on Aging. www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/falls-prevention-facts/
- “Universal Design.” PBS.org. www.pbs.org/hometime/house/udesign.htm#:~:text=Universal%20design%2C%20also%20called%20barrier,%2C%20physical%20ability%2C%20or%20stature.&text=In%20fact%2C%20applying%20universal%20design,a%20house%20feel%20more%20spacious.