Aging in place: How elderly homeowners wanting to live independently can stay safe
There are a few things people can expect with age — shorter stature, more wrinkles and a slower pace of life — but saying adios to independent living doesn’t have to be one of them.
According to AARP, aging homeowners largely prefer to “age in place,” or live in their home safely and independently, regardless of age or ability level. For some seniors this is entirely possible, but to keep residents safe, considerations should be made about a house and what’s in it.
Really, though, safety measures are a good idea for everyone. “Homeowners should consider making changes to their home for safety’s sake from the day they move in. It is not just about seniors; it is safety for everyone. If you think about it, why wouldn’t you want to make your home safer?” said Alesha Churba, coordinator and advanced instructor for Idaho State University College of Technology. “An example would be lever-style door handles. Have you ever tried to turn a round doorknob holding a baby that is squirming? A door with a lever handle is just so much easier!”
And ease of living coupled with a sense of security are the keys to aging in place. Churba offers these safety suggestions in areas where most home accidents occur:
>> Bedroom. One reason bedrooms can be dangerous is that these rooms are often dark when we’re in them — during sleeping hours — and “it is harder for older eyes to adjust to the darkened room,” Churba said. Installing nightlights is an easy way to address this, making sure they light the way to the bathroom and illuminate the bathroom itself. Having a lamp or other light source within reach of the bed is a good idea too.
Another bedroom risk factor is heat sources. “Seniors notoriously run colder than younger bodies for a variety of reasons. The tendency is to want to warm up the room with either a space heater or the use of an electric blanket,” Churba said. Space heaters should stand clear of beds; they should also automatically turn off if tipped over and not burn skin when touched. Even though older homes typically have fewer outlets, space heaters should never be plugged into electrical extension cords not rated for this purpose, and cords should not run under carpets or rugs as this poses a fire hazard. And make sure an outlet in use will not overheat while the space heater is on, Churba said.
An electric blanket should be used on settings other than high, “especially if the senior falls asleep with it on. A senior may not feel a burn until it is too late because of reduced circulation,” Churba said, noting that newer blankets are designed to turn off after a certain amount of time. Electric blankets should not be tucked around the mattress.
>> Kitchen. Install a smoke detector near the range so if something is forgotten while on the stove, the alarm will sound. Make sure batteries are checked and replaced regularly. Be wary of tripping hazards like throw rugs, and do not turn on the stove for warmth — it’s especially dangerous with gas stoves, Churba said.
>> Outside. Since many seniors shuffle when navigating ice, keep the home’s entrance and walkways well lit and clear of ice and snow; adding non-slip tape to steps also prevents falls. Placing a skid-resistant walk-off carpet, made especially for wet areas, in the entry can absorb water tracked in.
>> And one more tip: Don’t forget the furnace. “If the furnace is run on gas, have it checked by the gas company for leaks. Consider having the furnace checked yearly, both gas and electric,” Churba said. “A senior’s sense of smell is often dulled with age, and a gas leak could be missed.” Install a carbon-monoxide detector in the bedroom and check its functioning regularly too.