The majority of seniors want to remain in their own homes as they age for a variety of reasons, including financial, emotional and social factors. Aging in place, however, requires a little bit of planning in order to help protect a senior’s health and safety. As an Occupational Therapist at Penn Medicine Home Health, Marisa Hart, MS, OTR/L, is an expert in helping people navigate the challenges of aging in place.
“Over time it is necessary for seniors to make modifications to the home to accommodate the typical aging process,” says Hart. “Some common health changes that can occur as a result of the aging process include balance impairment from reduced reflexes and coordination; diminished vision and hearing acuity; changes to sensation; bone fragility; and postural changes—all of which can impact our at-home safety.”
Understanding Safety Concerns for Seniors
According to Hart, there can be “danger zones” in the home, which are the most common places that older adults will experience a fall.
“The bathroom, stairs and kitchen are particularly high risk,” says Hart. “Caregivers should pay extra attention when in any of these areas of the home. Occupational therapists will often provide advice for how to make specific changes to the home to help prevent falls, and it’s important to implement their recommendations to keep seniors safe.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that roughly 25% of adults over the age of 65 experience a fall each year, and one in five of those falls results in a serious injury, like a broken bone or a head injury. In fact, more than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falls—usually because the person falling lands on their side.
Age-related falls aren’t the only cause for concern when it comes to safety while aging in place. Hart recommends taking medical diagnoses into consideration when thinking about home changes that need to be made for senior safety.
“The state the person is in when a diagnosis is made should be considered, as well as whether the disease, or condition, is progressive in nature,” says Hart. “The rate of decline that will occur will depend on the nature of the diagnosis. Additionally, the side effects of a neurological diagnosis will differ vastly from a diabetes diagnosis vs. an autoimmune diagnosis. If the individual has a cognitive impairment but not a physical impairment impeding their mobility status, the home safety changes will differ.”
Hart tells us that in cases where a diagnosis has been made, an occupational therapist should absolutely be consulted, as they are best equipped to determine the specific home safety changes that would support long-term health.
Making Practical Changes in the Home for Optimal Health
As Hart noted, the changes that need to be made in the home will vary from person to person depending on their own needs and abilities. There are, however, some small changes that Hart recommends across the board to keep seniors safe at home:
1. Lower Pantry Staples. If a senior has to stand on a step stool or overreach to the point of losing balance, that’s a red flag for fall risk. By making sure that the food staples they need to access on a daily basis are within arm’s reach, you can lower their chances of experiencing a fall.
2. Add Support Near the Bed. Hart says that something as simple as a footstool with a handrail made specifically for beds can reduce the risk of falls by providing extra support to get on and off the bed.
3. Get Assistive Gear for the Bathroom. Depending on an individual’s specific needs, adding some extra support for them in the bathroom can aid in their overall safety. Whether investing in a raised toilet seat, a shower chair, or grab bars, incorporating the use of an assistive device can have a big impact on their health.
4. Reduce Tripping Hazards. From reducing household clutter to securing loose rugs or bunched carpets to adding more light in dark corners of the home, it’s possible to lower the risk of falls without spending a lot of money. Hart also suggests removing or securing loose cords or wires, refraining from keeping shoes on the stairs, and getting rid of welcome mats.
5. Invest in Medical Equipment and Assistive Devices. Items such as a rolling walker, a reacher, or even the raised toilet seat are typically covered by insurance and can have a big impact on maintaining senior safety in the home. Hart encourages her patients to review their insurance coverage to see if they have affordable access to these items. If not, check in with local resources, such as places of worship and donation-based businesses, which can assist with acquiring equipment.
What to Do When Bigger Changes Are Needed
For some seniors, bigger changes need to made, such as adding a wheelchair ramp or installing an assistive chair in stairwells, in order to maintain health and safety at home. If you have Medicare Part B, the plan covers up to 80% of the cost of an occupational therapist. Having an expert weigh in on the specific changes that should be made can help seniors age in place safely.
Right at Home Focuses on Fall Prevention
Right at Home care experts work with families to reduce the risk of falls for older loved ones. To learn more, visit Right at Home’s fall prevention page. Also, join us August 26 for our complimentary webinar, “Understanding, Identifying and Addressing Fall Risk in Aging Adults,” which will describe fall risk factors, identify who is at high risk of falling, and provide care techniques for preventing older adults from falling.