How to make your home safer for older adults
Everyone wants an independent, active lifestyle, even as our age odometer ticks well above 60. But as years go by, it’s wise — and increasingly important — to take precautionary measures to ensure a safe, secure environment around the home.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults 65 and older fall each year. These falls are the leading cause of fatal or debilitating injuries among this age group. Each year, more than 300,000 Americans are admitted to hospitals for broken hips, most often caused by falling, according to the National Institute on Aging. A recent AARP study concluded that people 65 and over experience nearly 2 million falls annually, resulting in $16.4 billion in medical expenses.
In addition to taking steps to secure a safe home environment, studies show that participating in strengthening and balance exercises can reduce the risk of falls, providing older adults with many years of happy, independent retirement living.
Here are some simple exercises and easy-to-accommodate steps to help make your home safer.
A balancing act
“Maintaining good body balance is perhaps the most effective way to stay out of the ER,” says John Hanrahan, fitness center coordinator at Westminster Place, a Presbyterian Homes Life Plan Community in Evanston, Illinois. Developing proper balance is simply the best way to minimize risk from falling — and it's a big part of Hanrahan's exercise classes.
“We use a variety of exercises in our classes here,” Hanrahan says. “Strengthening exercises, postural exercises, standing balance activities as well as some dynamic moving exercises like weight shifting and reaching, to help improve balance.”
Hanrahan recommends a couple of simple balancing exercises to do at home: “Practice standing on one foot but make sure you are standing behind a sturdy chair or counter. Also, practice walking from heel to toe, staying mindful in your walking — landing on your heel and pushing off of your toes as you step off.”
Robert Ratliff, a personal trainer for Equinox Fitness Clubs, believes building muscle strength is a key factor in improving balance.
“Since I focus on workouts for people with physical issues like surgery and strokes, most of my students are 50-plus,” Ratliff says. “And balance is a real focus on what we do, mainly by building muscle mass and strengthening twitch fibers, the tendons that assist quickness and agility, which naturally begin to deteriorate in people after 30.”
Ratliff starts his clients slowly with squats and wall pushups — simply supporting the body with both hands flat, leaning forward against a wall and pushing up and down in a pushup motion. More advanced clients can move on to free weights, weight machines and elastic-band devices that stretch to create muscle resistance. But even the simplest exercise can help build strength.
“Just getting up and walking as often as possible can help with balance,” he says. “The stronger you are, the harder it is to lose your balance.”
Safety around pets
Animals are wonderful companions, but they can create hazards for older adults. Keep pet toys out of main pathways and consider limiting them to just one room of the house. Hang leashes by the door, clean up any food or water spills immediately and train pets to sit upon command, so they won’t run in between and around your legs.
Create a safety zone
Along with building internal balance and strength, Hanrahan says it's equally important to safeguard your external home environment. Here are 10 simple steps that can help prevent accidents.
- Remove loose rugs or secure them with tacks to prevent slipping.
- To minimize tripping, keep high-traffic areas free of electrical cords and cables.
- Take care that smooth floors aren't overly waxed and slippery.
- Avoid standing on stepladders or chairs, especially without a spotter.
- Good lighting is essential for getting around safely. Make sure all bulbs and fluorescent fixtures are at least 100 watts.
- Staircases can be especially dangerous for older people. Ensure that steps have a no-skid surface and are brightly lit, with light switches at the top and bottom of the stairs.
- Always have a night light on in the bathroom and skid-proof the tub. Also, install grab bars where they might be needed, such as near the toilet, in the shower or by the tub.
- Finally, seniors should have their vision checked regularly. It might be the most important step for safety inside and outside the home. “If you can see a hazard,” Hanrahan says, “hopefully you can avoid it.”
—Bob Young for Presbyterian Homes