This resource guide will review the steps that can be taken to create a safe living area for seniors, discuss how technology can assist, and how to gauge the warning signs that indicate an entirely different approach may be necessary. It concludes with a list of resources for additional information on senior safety.
Senior population on the rise
• The world’s senior population is projected to double from the current total of 617 million to more than 1.5 billion by the year 2050.
• The United States’ senior population is expected to rise from 48 million to 88 million.
• By the year 2050 life expectancy will increase by approximately eight years, reaching the age of 76.2.
• Also by 2050, the "super old" (those aged 80 and above) will triple from 126.5 million to 446.6 million.
What these statistics indicate is that a larger percentage of the total global population is rapidly becoming dominated by senior citizens. Unfortunately, as many people reach this stage of their lives, their mental faculties can decline, making home life much more hazardous and likely to result in injury or other types of unpleasant occurrences.
This presents a challenge to loved ones living with or who have seniors alone at home. Doing everything necessary to create a safer environment for their relative is of greater importance than before. Although no living environment can be made 100% injury-proof, there are many preventive measures that can be implemented to help keep seniors safe. However, the demands of senior safety - coupled with other factors and variables - force many loved ones to confront the possibility of having to place their relative in an assisted living environment for their own benefit.
Potential hazards at home
Things which were once easy to use and situations which were once easy to manage can become challenges (and even hazards) to a lot of seniors. Seniors who have lost a few degrees of mobility and flexibility cannot cope as well with objects that clutter up walkways and traffic areas. Getting out of bed in the morning can be a physical challenge, taking a shower or bath carries the risk of slippage, and loose cutlery on a countertop presents a potential injury. In fact, a lot of seniors lose balance while simply standing and suffer falls on the spot.
When mental impairment is more of an issue, a senior might become easily confused or disoriented which results in wandering off. When surroundings which were once well known and comforting become jumbled in the mind, confusing, and uninterpretable, almost any dreaded scenario could ensue.
Steps for establishing home safety
For the aforementioned reasons, many relatives go to great lengths to try and make the home a safer place for their seniors in an effort to reduce or eliminate hazards to whatever extent possible.
Consider fall-proofing the home
Provide rails and grab bars in the rooms they frequently use. Then make your best effort to remove clutter, secure loose rugs, install non-slip mats, and so on. Unfortunately, no home can be rendered absolutely fall-proof because it's difficult to identify every single hazard - and some which are known can't immediately be addressed because of cost or other obstacles. In the event that your relative does undergo a fall at home, medic alert devices (mentioned below) are a wonderful support to have because of their qualified health professionals who effectively monitor these situations.
Well-lit hallways and rooms
Having well-lit hallways and rooms is also a good preventive measure, as are night lights for seniors who are active later in the day. Many seniors are subject to worsening vision and cannot see things as clearly as they once did.
Smoke detectors and fire extinguishers
Smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are essential for avoiding fires and controlling them if they do break out. Smoke detectors should be tested periodically to ensure that they are still in good working order and able to alert a senior (or any) resident to the danger of an impending fire outbreak.
Avoid spills and burns
To avoid spills and burns, pot handles should not be left pointing outward on stoves. If possible, stoves should be avoided altogether for seniors. Microwave ovens are a safer option if the senior is still involved in meal preparation as they don’t generate heat like an oven - removing burns as a potential hazard.
Most seniors take medication, with several taking multiple doses a day. It's important that there is a clear system for marking and dispensing medications so that a senior does not become confused about whether certain drugs have already been taken or on which days they need to be taken. A compartmentalized pill box can help with easy identification, but an automatic medication dispenser is even better, eliminating many potential medication mistakes.
Senior home safety products
An entire industry has sprung up around the production of home safety products aimed towards senior citizens at home. Many of these have been developed in response to a demonstrated need and most of them are at least somewhat effective in curtailing the dangers that might occur and jeopardize the safety of home-bound elderly persons.
Cabinet locks, door guardians, and refrigerator locks can prevent access to storage areas or exits from the house to discourage wandering or exploring which might end badly.
Shower seats and rails
Shower seats and shower rails make it much easier and safer for a senior to take a shower or bath without falling, and non-slip mats placed in the tub contribute to staying balanced.
Anti-scalding devices can also be used to ensure that an inappropriate level of hot water does not injure the bathing elderly person.
In the event that any kind of emergency develops in a given room where a senior is alone, wall-mounted speakers provide effective communication with others in the home and alert someone that a potentially dangerous situation has occurred.
Home security systems
Not to be overlooked in the parade of situational devices, a good home security system can be of critical value in establishing a safe environment. Especially in cases where a senior must be left alone for any period of time, these systems can be invaluable in discouraging or preventing entry (or even wandering). Would-be burglars aware that seniors are home alone and tempted to target them could thus be effectively kept from carrying out malicious intentions.
Modern technology can help in a great way with home safety for seniors who might be bothered by bouts of disorientation and given to wandering. GPS watches can quickly locate a senior who may have left the premises and gone down the street somewhere. It is not uncommon to find disoriented seniors wandering the streets, many blocks from home.
Medical alert systems
As mentioned earlier, medic alert systems are one of the most popular methods of monitoring senior safety at home and ensuring that a senior is not left alone in the event of some kind of health crisis or accident which may have occurred. These systems are generally monitored by emergency medical technicians or certified operators, who understand medical conditions, and are prepared to initiate a fast response so that a crisis can be averted.
Usually a medic alert system will include a feature which allows for two-way communication, so the situation can be explained and understood, and some have a broad range of effectiveness which covers both the home and the yard, for cases where an event happens outside. Many also have GPS cellular capability, which pinpoints the position of the wearer, and some even have a fall detection feature which is activated automatically - potentially when a senior might lose consciousness or become otherwise unresponsive.
Typically, medic alert systems are used in situations when a senior spends large periods of time alone, and the devices act as a proxy for human care, which might not always be available for the senior. In other circumstances, that human care can be provided by either a loved one whom the senior resides with, by a professional live-in medical professional, or by a non-medical caretaker.
In-home care from relatives
Approximately $150 billion per year is spent on home care and nursing services to provide adequate care for the elderly. While this may seem like an impressive statistic, it pales in comparison to the estimated $375 billion per year which is the value of services provided by family caregivers for free when caring for elderly relatives.
More than 29% of the entire U.S. population, or about 65 million people currently provide home care for an elderly relative and must commit at least 20 hours per week in that effort. These statistics were prepared by the National Alliance for Caregiving in conjunction with AARP just a few years ago, and it is estimated that even these fall well short of what up-to-the-minute statistics would reveal.
In any case, it should be apparent that the number of seniors requiring home caregiving is staggering, that the cost is even more overwhelming, and that the need for caregiving affects a very large percentage of American households. In-home care is by far the most preferred scenario for the administration of health care and safety among the elderly, with more than 90% of all seniors favoring the familiar and comfortable surroundings of home.
In-home care from caregivers
There are, however, wide variations in the types of in-home care for seniors and these often depend on the physical and mental status of the senior. For instance, a physically disabled senior might need a physical therapist or a home health nurse on hand to satisfy personal needs. By contrast, a senior with some form of dementia might need the assistance of a non-medical professional for personal care, for home-making assistance, and for companionship.
Deciding when to place a senior in a home
This can be an agonizing decision for any relative to make about their senior loved one, especially since it will almost always run counter to the senior’s own wishes. There are warning signs, however, which are good indicators that the time has come for some form of assisted living and that the elderly person would be safer in a more formalized, structured environment.
Quite often in the later stages of dementia, seniors begin to wander more frequently, because they have become increasingly disoriented and confused about their home surroundings, and nothing seems recognizable to them anymore. This can happen just in the time it takes you to go to the kitchen for a drink of water, and as such, it represents a grave risk to the senior. At this point, constant monitoring may become necessary.
Home safety deficiencies
It may also be that the level of home safety needed by a disabled senior has outstripped what you are able to provide, and a safer environment would be more beneficial for them. In some cases, the cost of installing the many safety devices needed, or of making a residence completely accident-proof, simply exceeds the means of loved ones.
At a certain stage of dementia, some seniors begin to demonstrate more overtly aggressive behavior, often threatening caregivers physically, emotionally, and possibly even in a sexual manner. This in turn, can give rise to resentment on the part of the caregiver, creating a mood of tension between them, and even downright hostility.
One particular condition known as "Sundowner Syndrome" affects many elderly people with Alzheimer’s, and in this scenario, the senior often exhibits very agitated behavior that is typically triggered during the later hours of the day. This has been known to severely impact family life, and to place an undue burden on many caregivers and family members, so that the living experience for all concerned is degraded and made less safe or healthful.
Escalating care requirements
When it becomes clear that the degree of care needed by an elderly person exceeds your ability or a caregiver’s ability to supply that care, this may be another trigger point for considering assisted living. For instance, in situations where a senior has reached the later stages of dementia, constant care and monitoring may be necessary, and this is not often possible for loved ones to provide.
Crimes against seniors
Telemarketing and phone scams
Declining mental acuity, in some cases accompanied by the onset of dementia, makes many seniors inviting targets for the criminal-minded, who seek to exploit them for personal gain. Such predators have devised numerous telephone scams and other methods to deprive seniors of important personal information, which can then be used to access accounts and steal from them. These criminals prey on the fact that some seniors are easily confused and can be deprived of assets with relative ease.
Apart from such external criminal attempts, crimes against seniors are also committed by caretakers, who take advantage of their sometimes feeble physical abilities and/or declining mental faculties. It is not uncommon to find that some seniors have been physically abused and have become uncommunicative and unwilling to discuss certain topics. They might have undergone a decline in personal hygiene or have withdrawn from normal daily activities. All of these may be manifestations of elderly abuse, either by caretakers or disaffected relatives. Anyone observing these signs among the elderly should notify local Adult Protective Services or law enforcement agencies about the observed signs. It's not necessary to have proof of abuse for such notification, but where abuse is suspected, it should always be investigated by the proper authorities.
There's a wealth of material available online which can supplement the information included in this reference guide. If you require information which was not already discussed in the body of this overview, it may be available from one of the sources identified below.
- Administration on Aging
- American Parkinson’s Disease Association
- American Pharmaceutical Association
- Assisted Living Store
- Center for Aging Services Technologies
- National Association for Home Care and Hospice
- National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs
- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
- National Family Caregivers Association
- National Institute on Aging