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Creating a Safe Independent Living Environment

23 Nov 2017

How long should Dad drive? What do you do when you know it’s not safe for him to be behind the wheel and he’s adamant about driving? What do you do when Mom leaves the gas stove on, and gets lost in the neighbourhood? Do you put a network of community services together or should she move into a long-term care facility?

Balancing your family member or friend’s need for independent living with their need for safety can be difficult. But, ultimately, you’ll need to respect their decision to remain at home so long as they are capable. And, rest assured, there are many creative ways of helping them along the way. Don’t go rushing into taking control, involve them and reinforce their sense of control in the process of creating a safe independent living environment. Emphasize how a few simple additions or modifications will make things easier for them.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Outdoor Lighting. Motion-sensitive lighting and lights on timers are good. An automatic light outside the doorway will let your family member or friend know that someone is home and in the driveway. And, if they forget to turn the lights on before they leave for the day, the light will be on when they get home. This will go a long way in increasing visibility and preventing falls.

  • The neighbours. If possible, get to know the neighbours and identify someone you and your family member or friend trust enough to have an extra set of keys. Do this ONLY if there is someone you really trust. If not, you may want to just share phone numbers so that you can call each other and arrange to have someone look in on them.

  • Lifeline. A personal medical alert system can give you and the person you are caring for a great sense of security. They offer your family member or friend a choice of wearing a necklace or bracelet. If there’s an emergency, all they need to do is push a button and it will alert for help. You can obtain a Lifeline Emergency Response System through CHATS by calling 905-713-6596.

Balancing Independent Living and Safety

While you’re devising a safe independent living environment with your family member or friend, it is very important to bear in mind that you don’t want to do too much for them. Know what they can and can’t do. Let them do what they can for themselves and assist them only with what they need help doing. Doing everything or having someone else do everything will only increase their limitations. Here’s where finding creative ways of enabling your family member or friend’s independent living by continuing to do as many daily tasks as possible comes into play. Not all of these may apply. Base your use of these strategies on your family member or friend’s existing abilities. Use only what will help them do the things that they currently have difficulty doing. You can always use more of these later and you don’t want to overdo it.

Try the following:

  • The Kitchen. Encourage your family member or friend to use a microwave oven to prevent accidents on gas or electric stoves. Replace standard dials on the stove with larger dials and make sure the off button is highly visible (consider marking it red). Take a look at their small appliances. Do they need to be updated? Do they have an easy, automatic can opener, a jar opener, and a small microwave that can be programmed for particular meals. Hang potholders near the stove for easy access, so that your family member or friend won’t need to use a towel or apron. Advise them not to wear housecoats or other apparel with large open sleeves that can get caught on the stove or pot handle. Make sure dishes, pots, pans are in easy reach so that they aren’t reaching too high or low. Reaching can throw them off balance and cause a fall.

  • The Bathroom. Place rubber, nonskid strips on the bathroom floor and nonskid bathmats in the tub and/or shower. If your family member or friend uses a shower, make sure the shower curtain is not held up by a tension rod. If they grab it for support, they will fall with it. Install a rod that is bolted to the wall. Install handrails on each side of the toilet and a raised toilet seat. Install grab bars in the shower and/or tub. Make sure that the water temperature is set at a safe setting (120 degrees or lower). Many older people lose their sensitivity to temperature and can scald themselves. Check that the faucets are clearly marked hot and cold, perhaps colour-coding them red for hot and blue for cold. Organize the medicine cabinet, and possibly colour-code the back of the shelves so that cold medicines, prescriptions, and first aid supplies are easily identified. Safely position small appliances away from the sink or tub and install shelving specifically for this purpose. Attach a liquid soap dispenser to the shower wall so that your family member or friend won’t slip and fall when they try and retrieve a bar of soap that they’ve dropped.

  • The Living Room. Get rid of any throw rugs. Even with carpet tape and no-skid mats, it’s easy to trip. And, they throw off depth perception because they have to readjust their focus back and forth from a bare floor to carpet.

  • Stairways. All stairways should have handles on both sides. Place brightly covered adhesive tape to the edge of each step, so your family member or friend can see the contrast and know she’s at the edge of each step.

  • Indoor Lighting. Dark hallways are a no-no, especially if they lead to brightly lit rooms or a stairway. The light should also be indirect, aimed at the ceiling or a wall to prevent glare. Install light switches at the top and bottom of stairs and use those switches that you press rather than flip. It’s easier to press with your hand than try and use arthritic fingers to flip a tiny switch. Install emergency lighting to come on in case of a power outage. Keep a flashlight on the nightstand within easy reach. Install sound or movement activated lights that go on and off automatically. Put in nightlights throughout hallways on route to where your family member or friend might need to go during the night. Make sure there is no clutter or tables in the hallways. Make sure there are no extension cords throughout the house – it’s a tripping hazard.

Adapted from Rhodes, L. (2001). Caregiving as Your Parents Age: The Complete Guide to Helping your Parents Age Gracefully, Happily and Healthfully. New York: Penguin Group.