10 tips for a safer home

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It is not surprising that an overwhelming number of us want to continue living in our own homes as we age. In fact, a national survey of 1,000 Canadians found that 70 per cent would be more comfortable staying put, and this desire increases as we get even older.

The wish to remain “at home” must be paired with the realization that age almost always necessitates adjustments and modifications according to changing needs and abilities. The best place to start is with a review. This will help you to determine what changes are needed to improve safety and independence. Here, we feature 10 areas to look at that will get you off to a great start.

1. Be proactive

Act before the changes are needed. After the first fall and fractured hip or broken pelvis, the adjustments that you thought you’d make will be too late.

Planning ahead will lessen the risk, but can be challenging. It is unlikely that seniors will want to change an environment that currently (as they see it) doesn’t pose any problems. Take time to communicate the value of modifications to keep them independent and in their home. As hesitant and resistant as they might be, make sure you involve them in the process and encourage them to take ownership of projects, if possible.

2. Safety and security

Adult children often worry about the security and safety of their parents, especially when they are home alone. Consider home alarms that can be configured so that every window and exterior door will sound an alarm if opened. Some home-alarm companies can install cameras so you can monitor the house from a remote location. From a caregiver’s perspective, this can give you comfort by being able to see that your loved one is okay, regardless of where you are.

In addition, think of the following:

  • • All exterior doors should have a dead bolt and extra keys should be stored carefully.
  • • Security bars on basement windows act as an effective deterrent to burglars.
  • • The front door should have a peephole so that visitors can be screened. Seniors should be encouraged not to open the door to strangers.
  • • All important papers and documents should be stored in a safe and secure, dry place in the home.
  • • Encourage the use of an emergency response system such as Philips Lifeline, and suggest seniors keep a cordless phone within reach.

3. Find ways to save money

With many seniors on limited or fixed incomes, increasing living costs of any kind can be burdensome and cause worry.

While making the home more energy efficient does come with upfront costs, it can result in lower monthly costs and end up putting money back in the bank. Given new federal and provincial grants, now is a great time to increase the energy efficiency of a home and lower operating expenses.

In addition, remember that regular maintenance extends the working life of furnaces, air-conditioners, water tanks and other household fixtures. It will also keep them working safely and control operating costs.

4. Safety-proof stairs

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, seniors of 65 years and older account for 75 per cent of deaths caused by falling on stairs.

  • A light switch should be located at the top and bottom of the staircase.
  • All areas of the stairs should be adequately lit.
  • A handrail should be located on both sides of the stairs, be properly secured to the wall and extend 12 inches beyond the stair.
  • Stairs must stay free from clutter.
  • To aid with depth perception (which diminishes as we age) and visual separation, the edges of steps should be distinguished from the rest of the stairs. Many people use yellow tape.
  • All steps should be secure and in good repair.

5. The great outdoors

Even if you or your loved ones rarely leave the home, ensure the exterior of the house is safe and well-maintained. Arrangements should be made for seasonal tasks such as snow removal, lawn and garden care, and leaf collection.

All surfaces and walkways should be salted in the winter, in good repair and free of cracks and ridges, and outdoor lights should have a motion detector that turns them on automatically. Down spouts must extend away from the walkway and driveway. House numbers should be well lit and clearly visible from the street, especially at night to facilitate deliveries or access for care or emergency personnel. If the garage is still in use, think about installing an automatic door opener to avoid accidents and back strain.

6. Lug-free laundry

Doing the washing requires much bending and lifting, which can put a lot of strain on the back. Many of our recommended changes are designed to make this task less strenuous.

  • If physically and financially possible, relocate laundry machines to the same floor as the bedroom as this is where most laundry is generated. If space is an issue, consider a stackable washer and dryer that can fit in small spaces, even a closet.
  • Front-loading washers and dryers on a pedestal eliminate unnecessary bending and lifting.
  • A roller cart makes it easier to take items to and from designated locations on one floor (however, do not attempt to move the roller cart up or down stairs).
  • Mounting a folding ironing board on a wall or behind a door eliminates the need to fold, lift and carry the board back and forth.

7. Better basements

We often forget about the basement if the laundry room is located elsewhere in the home, because there is little reason to go down there. Don’t forget about this space; you will probably have to go there at some point and it can be a dangerous task if you have not made appropriate adjustments. Ensure the basement is well lit and light switches are placed in convenient locations.

Basements are often used for storage and can easily become cluttered. Label belongings and arrange them so they are easy to find. Periodically take an inventory of all items and throw away those that are no longer in use. Use a dehumidifier appropriate for the size of the basement to prevent mould and damp.

8. Careful in the kitchen

Many family members rightly become concerned about the kitchen and appliances if seniors have shown signs of memory impairment. A stove burner left on overnight can cause a fatal fire.

The safer option is an induction or newer glass-top electric stove with elements that turn red when in use and indicators showing which elements are hot to the touch, even after the element has been turned off. In addition, devices can be purchased that automatically shut off a stove that has been left unattended (e.g., Stove Guard).

Experts recommend installing special above-stove fire extinguishers that automatically go off when a fire is detected. Caution around the stove while wearing loose-fitting clothing or drooping sleeves is another way to reduce fire hazards.

9. Firmer furniture

Many seniors have sentimental attachments to their furnishings, but they must be inspected to ensure they are safe and secure.

Furnishing should be sturdy and secured solidly to the wall. An unstable piece of furniture can quickly become a lethal object if it falls on top of a senior who is flailing for support.

Can your loved one easily sit and rise from the chair or couch? If not, you may be able to adjust the height with firmer cushions or stable height adjusters. Specific assistive devices, such as specially designed poles, bars and furniture cushions, can help seniors get up and down safely.

If your loved one finds transferring in and out of bed difficult, consider adding an assistive device to the bedroom. Your local home healthcare store will be able to advise you on the options.

10. Empty house?

When vacations are booked well in advance, it is easy to plan for time away from home and organize a neighbour or two to check on the house and collect mail. However, it is equally important to have arrangements in place for sudden, short-term absences.

During time away, someone should visit the home daily and arrange for snow and leaf removal, lawn cutting and mail and newspaper collection. Be sure to have a timer set up with a lamp at the front of the house that can easily be turned on when necessary.

Many home insurance policies will not cover damage if a house is not properly supervised. In Ontario, a house is considered “unoccupied” if it is empty for more than 30 days. If this may apply to you, contact your broker. He or she will advise you if the insurance company needs to be informed of a change.

Aging in place

In short, Canadians work hard to achieve home ownership and everything it represents—comfort, security, belonging and especially independence. Aging in place can and should be fulfilling, safe and comfortable, providing adaptations are carefully considered and appropriate modifications made.

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