As your parent or loved one gets older, you might find yourself worrying about their safety at home for any number of reasons. You might be anxious about potential falls if their balance is unsteady, their judgment if they are living with cognitive decline, or whether they can handle regular household chores as they manage a new health condition.
There’s plenty to worry about, but the good news is that you can adjust your loved one’s living environment to make it safer for their specific challenges and abilities. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of home safety tasks to tackle, including ones you can complete during your next visit or hire a contractor to take care of. We’re also providing resources you might not know about to adapt your loved one’s home and support their wellness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 1 in 4 seniors fall annually, though that number is typically thought to be higher because many falls go unreported. Falls are the No. 1 cause of injury-related death among those over 65, and injuries from falls lead to more than 3 million emergency room visits each year.
Falling is a serious concern for family members, and it is more common than you might think. Seniors are at a higher risk of falling due to a variety of factors that decrease balance, make gait unsteady, and create the perfect environment for a slip, trip, or fall.
Fortunately, you can make quick adjustments to your loved one’s home to decrease their risk of falling. Let’s look at some options.
Make it easier to see by focusing on the lighting on the outside and inside of your loved one’s home. Low vision is a major contributing factor to falls, and an estimated 15 percent of adults over the age of 85 live with a diagnosed eye condition that causes some degree of low vision. Better lighting can help to decrease fall risk due to vision challenges.
If your loved one has low vision, adding lighting can be a quick fix that improves safety right away. Start by adding more lighting throughout the home, including stairwells and other darker spots in the home. Adding nightlights along the pathway from your loved one’s bedroom to the bathroom will help to prevent nighttime falls, which are quite common when a senior wakes up to go to the restroom in the middle of the night.
You can hire an electrician to wire in new overhead lights, or you can utilize other lighting solutions like lamps, push lights, or string lights in darker areas of the home. Just be sure if you are using a solution with cords, you secure any cords so they do not become trip hazards themselves.
A significant percentage of senior falls at home happen in the bathroom, and it’s no wonder. The wet and slippery environment provides perfect conditions for a serious fall.
You can make your loved one’s bathroom safer by adding skid-proof rugs outside of the shower or tub, as well as in the shower itself. Having that extra traction when entering, exiting, and using the shower can decrease the risk of falling.
Adding grab bars to the shower and near the toilet can provide the extra stability your loved one might need while transferring or moving from standing to sitting. Speak with your loved one and their physician to determine if adding a shower seat and adjustable shower head would also provide an extra safety measure.
Be sure you are eliminating any extra clutter in the bathroom. For example, an extra hutch or piece of furniture in a small bathroom can make the room feel even smaller and create less room for someone with a mobility aid to safely walk through.
Clearing the Clutter
Speaking of eliminating extra clutter in the bathroom, be sure you are eliminating clutter throughout the home. If your loved one uses a wheelchair, walker, cane, or other mobility aid, they need a wider path to safely move throughout the home.
You can help improve safety by removing any pieces of furniture that crowd their home’s commonly used pathways. Furthermore, get rid of any unsecured rugs and make sure no cords are running along the floor. The National Institute of Aging also recommends keeping pathways clear of boxes, books, and other clutter to decrease the risk of falling.
Other Household Dangers
Flooring transitions can be dangerous, such as stepping from carpet to tile, especially for those living with vision challenges. Consider highlighting these transitions with bright painter's tape on the floor to give your loved one a visual signal that a floor transition is approaching.
Falling can also occur when adults are trying to complete household chores that perhaps they are no longer able to do safely. For example, they could trip while trying to navigate a rocky garden bed in the backyard or while attempting to clear out the gutters. Remove items like step ladders, ladders, lawnmowers, and other items that your loved one might be tempted to use if they can no longer do so safely.
General Health and Safety
Although falls are one of the major dangers for older adults living at home, there are other health and safety factors to consider as you make adjustments to your loved one’s home.
Medication Errors or Mismanagement
Older adults often take more than one medication, with more than 40 percent taking more than five medications daily. Keeping up with their medication regimen can be confusing because it involves complex schedules of doses, times, and drugs to manage throughout the day. Unfortunately, missing a dose, doubling a dose, or taking the wrong pill can have serious consequences, leading to dangerous side effects and unplanned hospital visits.
You can help your loved one stay safe with their medications by developing a system that works for them and for you. Begin by determining if a traditional pillbox system might be best, where you or another designee fills the pillbox weekly for your loved one to take. If your loved one needs more assistance, setting an alarm on their smartphone could work. Or you might consider investing in a medication dispenser system that dispenses the right medications at the right time and offers an alarm to remind your loved one to take them.
Other medication management best practices include keeping a current list of all medications in your loved one’s purse, in your personal file, and in a designated spot in your loved one’s home. The National Institute of Aging recommends including each prescription name, why it was prescribed, and the prescribing doctor on the list.
Personal Alarm Systems
An emergency response system, pendant, or other alert device might help your loved one feel more confident at home. A simple push of a button could route them to an operator if they have a fall or other emergency.
If you are considering a personal alarm system, be sure you find one that your loved one is willing to wear, and one that they know how to recharge and operate. Alarm systems have come a long way and often provide fall detection technology, heart rate monitoring, and other features that could keep your loved one safer while living independently at home.
You might even consider looking at medical alert systems that offer surveillance of the home, notifying designated caregivers when there is a fall, less physical activity throughout the home, or other potential red flags that could point to an illness or health decline. These options are pricey but offer reassurance to the senior and their family members.
Emergency Response Measures
If there is an emergency, it’s crucial that your loved one knows how to call for help. Without a medical alert device, they one might find it helpful to have a list of emergency contact numbers posted in large print by each phone in the home or saved on their smartphone.
It can also be helpful to utilize the Vial of Life program, where you compile specific documents in a designated place in your loved one’s home that helps first responders know about any DNR wishes or other advance directives.
Older adults living at home alone or with a partner can struggle with nutrition. While there are physical changes that affect appetite, nutrient absorption, and metabolism as we age, there are other challenges to getting a healthy dish on the table.
For example, even the most active senior might find it exhausting to plan and prepare nutritious meals for themselves three times per day. In these cases, they may choose less healthy options, such as processed convenience foods. When visiting your loved one, look for signs that could point to this or other potential nutritional concerns, such as finding expired items in their fridge or cabinets. That could indicate they are not cooking as often and can put them at risk for foodborne diseases.
Help your loved one maintain good nutritional habits by developing meal prep and planning strategies to suit their abilities and preferences. This might mean keeping a grocery list on a shared drive or app so that you can take care of picking up their groceries on the way home from work. If you are dropping off food regularly to your loved one, make reheating the food as easy as possible. Portion foods individually and add instructions to each container.
They may prefer to use a meal delivery service. If cost is an issue, Meals on Wheels is a wonderful service offered in most communities, delivering warm meals once daily throughout the weekdays.
Scams targeting seniors are prevalent, with older adults being scammed out of more than $1.7 billion in 2021 alone according to a report from the FBI. Do what you can to ensure your loved one is safe from online, over the phone, or in-person fraud.
Keep your loved one safe by first adding their number to the DoNotCall Registry. Next, speak openly about good online safety practices and responsible digital citizenship. Remind your loved one to never give out passwords, click on links in emails from people they do not personally know, or open emails from someone they do not know.
You can stay updated on current scams in your area by following your loved one’s police department on social media. Knowing more about common scams in their area can give you specific talking points and reminders to share with your loved one. Finally, remind your loved one to never send cash or gift cards to strangers and instead use debit cards or other methods of payment that can be traced in case of fraud.
If your loved one is living with decreased mobility, a few home improvement projects can help them safely navigate around their home. If your loved one uses a mobility device like a wheeled walker or wheelchair, consider adding a home ramp if needed at the entrance of the house. You can also move the primary bedroom to the ground level of the home, widen doorways and hallways, and install a step-in shower to eliminate the large step into a tub shower.
If you aren’t sure what type of home modifications to make in order to assist with their mobility, speak with their physician or physical therapist for more specific recommendations.
Special Considerations for Cognitive Decline
With Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, it’s not just memory that is affected. People living with dementia can also have deficits in judgment, their senses, and their physical abilities, which can affect many facets of safety around the home. For a loved one living with cognitive decline, safety becomes an even larger priority.
Home Safety Features
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends adding safety features such as automatic shut-off options in kitchen appliances, stove knob safety covers, and locks for cabinets that contain poisonous or hazardous chemicals. You can also disconnect the garbage disposal, put medications and other substances in a locked drawer, and remove guns or other weapons from the home.
Wandering, or walking without a purpose, is common for those living with dementia, and it can lead to dangerous situations such as a senior getting lost outside of the home. Have a safety plan that includes keeping your contact information in all of the senior’s coats and cardigan pockets. You can also provide them with an identifying piece of jewelry to wear, such as an ID bracelet with their name and your contact information.
Enhance safety by adding locks on all doors that are above eye level. You can also invest in video security cameras or motion detectors outside of the front door, back door, and garage. Finally, remove the car keys from the home.
Offsetting the Costs of Home Safety Projects
Making small or large adjustments to your loved one’s home can get pricey. However, there are some options for offsetting the costs of your home safety projects.
Qualified seniors might be able to receive some assistance for home safety projects such as widening doorways, adding step-in showers, grab bars, shower seats, and even chair lifts. These benefits are only available for those who are eligible for Medicaid, and they’re typically offered through a home-based waiver system.
Medicare Part B covers some home safety supplies that fall under the durable medical equipment category, typically covering 80 percent of the costs as long as the equipment is prescribed by a physician. Equipment can include walkers and wheelchairs as well as portable commodes, hospital beds, and patient lifts.
If your loved one is on hospice, services including home safety equipment are typically covered 100 percent through Medicare.
Finding and Working with a Contractor for Home Safety Projects
If you don’t have the expertise to rewire lighting or install a shower grab bar, you can still advocate for your loved one’s home safety by hiring someone to take care of it.
Look for a contractor who has experience working in a senior’s home and with senior safety adaptations. Ask for referrals from your loved one’s neighbors or physician. You can also call the senior services department in your loved one’s city or village to see if vetted volunteers are available to assist with home improvements.
When possible, be there with your loved one for the interview process. Once you choose a contractor, make every effort to be at your loved one’s home when the contractor is there. If you cannot be there, ask a trusted neighbor or friend to be there while the work is being done. If the work is distracting or upsetting for your loved one, take them out of the home while the contractor is working on the projects.
Next Steps Beyond Home Safety Projects
Sometimes, aging adults need a specially designed environment to meet the challenges that come with cognitive decline, mobility issues, or other medical conditions. Senior living communities are the ideal environment, featuring accessible homes, plenty of natural and artificial lighting, emergency response systems, and wellness resources focused on preventing falls by working on balance and stability.
At Cedarhurst Senior Living communities, residents can be confident they are in an environment tailored to be safe, comfortable, and welcoming. For many, rightsizing their home space to something more manageable—as well as getting continuous support from caregivers—gives them back the energy they need to feel great, attend events, and make connections with neighbors.
Discover if rightsizing might be your loved one’s next best move by taking our assessment, “Is it the right time to downsize?” You’ll answer a few questions and get personalized results to point you in the right—and safest—direction.