Safer homes for seniors

or those 65 or older, a little slip can easily lead to a life-threatening injury.
According to the American Association of Retired Persons, by the end of 2001, more than 77,500 Ohioans older than 65 were admitted to emergency rooms after suffering falls. Most of these falls occur in the home.
Falls rank as the sixth-leading cause of death among people older than 65, and hip fractures from falls are the No. 1 cause of nursing home placement.
Sandy Lehotsky, director of home health care at Shepherd of the Valley, said there are many simple steps an older person can take to create a safer home.
"Throw rugs are one of the most common and most dangerous items in the homes of older people," Lehotsky said.
"Many older people put them down to preserve floors and carpeting, but they are very dangerous if you are using a walker or a cane to get around, or if your bones are not as strong as they once were, and you are at a greater risk for a fall."
Careful footing: The AARP recommends using carpet with short, dense pile, and if you must use throw rugs, apply double-sided carpet tape to the backs of the rugs and never place throw rugs at the top or bottom of stairways.
Also make sure that carpeting on stairs is firmly attached and loose or worn carpet replaced.
On noncarpeted stairs, use nonskid tape or rubber stair treads, and regardless of whether stairs are carpeted, always install handrails on both sides of steps and make sure steps are even.
Lehotsky said clutter is another common contributor to falls.
"Older people often have accumulated a lot of things over the years, and it is very important that they arrange the furniture in their home so they can easily walk around it," she said.
The AARP recommends removing extension cords from walking paths, keeping hallways and exits clear, using stable chairs with armrests to aid in standing up and choosing a first-floor bedroom, if possible.
Lehotsky said well-lighted rooms and nightlights can also prevent accidents.
"Older people should make sure they can easily reach light switches and can turn on lights without having to walk through dark areas, and they should always have a bright light in stairways," she said.
The AARP recommends using at least a 60-watt bulb in stairways and using window shades that reduce glare.
Falls in bathroom: Because of wet, slippery surfaces, people older than 65 are at a greater risk of taking a fall in the bathroom than almost anywhere else in the house.
The AARP recommends using rubber bathmats or strips in bathtubs and installing at least two grab bars, as well as using a raised toilet seat or handrails around the toilet.
Lehotsky said investing in a handheld shower head, shower chair and walk-in shower can also help reduce the chance of a fall.
"Many times older people would like to purchase these items, but they can't install them on their own," she said. "That's where family and friends should step in and help out."
Kitchen concerns: The kitchen is another room in the house where falls are common. To keep the kitchen as safe as possible, use stepstools with handrails, throw away step stools with broken parts and always clean up spills immediately.
Although falls in the home present a definite problem, Lehotsky said there are other dangers people older than 65 must guard against.
"We often remind people older than 65 not to smoke in bed and to replace the batteries in their smoke detectors at least twice a year," she said.
Lehotsky said it is also very important to plan a route of escape in case of fire, have the furnace inspected yearly and to use portable heaters with extreme caution.
"Many times older people buy portable heaters because they frequently get cold and then they sit too close to the heater and are at risk of being burned," she said.
Lehotsky said it is sometimes difficult to persuade seniors to make these changes.
"There are a lot of very healthy, active people out there who are older than 65 and don't think changes like these are necessary because they are doing just fine, but the idea is for them to stay healthy and independent -- these changes can help them do that," she said.
Here's an example: Frances Myers, 83, of Poland, knew it was time for some updates in her home after she fell while climbing stairs.
After the fall, Myers spent about three months in rehabilitation.
"A fall can be very, very serious for an older person," said Debi Burkholder, a home health aid for Shepherd of the Valley, who has assisted Myers with daily tasks for about two years.
"Fortunately, Frances didn't break any bones, but after she fell, her son got to work right away building a downstairs bathroom so his mother wouldn't have to climb stairs every time she needed to use the restroom."
Burkholder said that Myer's son made sure to install a raised toilet seat, as well as handrails on both inside and beside the shower stall.
"Frances's son also installed a new handrail on the stairs after [his mother] fell," Burkholder added.
Today Myers, who lives alone, still climbs the stairs in her home, but only at night when it's time for bed, and Burkholder said that Myers always keeps a telephone upstairs with her in case she should need to get in touch with someone in a hurry.
The AARP recommends examining your home as if you were seeing it for the first time and walking through each room with a detailed safety checklist. These checklists can be obtained from the AARP by writing to AARP Fulfillment, 601 E. St., Washington, D.C. 20049.

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