September 11, 2019

How to Live Safely at Home for the Long Term

Some people would prefer to grow old in the comfort of their own home. When doing so, safety is a prime concern and certain precautions should be taken. We thought since September is National Healthy Aging Month this is the perfect opportunity to share a few tips on how you or your loved ones can age in place.

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Look ahead to your older years. Examine your home from a senior perspective. The difference between your mobility—and your way of thinking—between, say, ages 63 and age 82 can be significant. Given what you know about the mobility, strength, and energy level of your parents or senior friends, would your current home be suitable for one of them? If not, are there things that could be done to make it suitable for when you are their age? Are issues with stairs or bathrooms fixable or do you need to think about moving to a new home with aging in place at top of mind?

The same could be said of your loved ones. Is the overall configuration of their house amenable to aging in place? For example, is everything they need on the first floor? Is there a place on the first floor for a laundry area? Making these kinds of changes with the future in mind is easier at a younger age when we tend to be more flexible and adaptable.

A First Responder’s Perspective

Janet Williamson, EMS and Emergency Management Coordinator at Huggins Hospital, has responded to a lot of emergency calls over 30 years in the field. She offers the following tips for a safer home:

  • Reduce fall hazards. “Falls are the number one cause for emergency response,” Williamson said. Keep clear paths throughout the house, remove throw rugs, store items within safe reach. While falls can happen to anyone, vision loss, lack of coordination, arthritis, and other age-related issues make us more prone to falling as we get older.
  • Keep connected. Williamson has treated people who had fallen up to a day earlier but couldn’t make a call. Have a call button and wear it. If you have a portable phone, take it with you as you move around the house. Recharge it overnight near your bedside. Check with town offices to see if there is a daily call list as a community service; if so, get yourself or your loved one on it.
  • Let police and fire departments know if an elder person in the home is oxygen-dependent so they will know to do a check-in in the event of a power outage.
  • Keep smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries fresh. The fire department can help with replacement.
  • Provide an information center for emergency personnel to readily find critical information. For example, post medication lists, advanced directives, and Do Not Resuscitate orders on the refrigerator door.
  • Avoid eating spoiled food. Sense of smell fades as we age so expiration dates should be checked often to lessen the risk of consumption.
  • Sign senior loved ones up for Meals on Wheels. Not only does this help ensure one nutritious meal a day but Meals on Wheels drivers can be the only person an elder living alone sees all day.
  • Keep an entry key in a secure exterior place. In some counties you can tell the dispatch service where that is so it can be communicated to emergency personnel. It not only avoids having to replace a broken window or door, but it also could mean the difference between life and death.
  • Last but far from least: Be sure your house number is clearly posted on your house. Emergency vehicles are going at speed, Williamson reminds, and need to be able to locate your house number from a distance.

Hospital Services for Senior Safety at Home

Here at Huggins Hospital, we have several services that can facilitate safe living in a home environment for seniors.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) services, according to the American Occupational Therapists Association (AOTA), “help people across the lifespan participate in the things that they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities”—i.e., the “occupations” of daily life. This can additionally include help recovering from injury and, for older adults, support for physical and cognitive changes. The overall goal is to adapt the environment to fit the needs of the person.

Interventions include:

  • Individualized evaluation to determine goals. This could be as general as being able to safely live alone to as specific as improving handwriting after surgery.
  • Customized intervention to improve ability to perform daily activities. Something as simple as moving everyday dishware to a lower shelf can make a big difference in daily life.
  • Outcomes evaluation to ensure goals are being met and the plan changes when necessary. Knowing someone will be checking the plans you made together are actually working can provide great comfort.

An occupational therapist may perform a comprehensive evaluation of a client’s home and make recommendations for adaptive equipment—from something as simple as use of a cane to slight alterations of the home environment like installation of railings. OTs then train the user as well as family members and other caregivers how to utilize the recommended equipment.

A key thing to remember in occupational therapy, says the AOTA, “is that the person being helped is an integral part of the therapy team.” In other words, occupational therapy is not done to you but instead is done with you. For more information about Huggins Hospital’s Rehabilitation Services, please call Back Bay Rehabilitation at 603.569.7565.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy focuses on increasing mobility and function, which also can help lead to a more independent life. Balance disturbances, weakness, and vertigo (dizziness) are three things that can cause safety issues in the home. Huggins Hospital’s Back Bay Rehabilitation Center has a computerized balance program that can give great baseline feedback as to where the patient’s center of gravity is, how much weight is being put on each foot, giving the patient and their referring provider very useful information to develop a treatment plan.

Huggins’ Back Bay Rehabilitation has occupational and physical therapists ready to help after you receive a referral from your primary care provider. For more information about Huggins Hospital’s Rehabilitation Services, please call Back Bay Rehabilitation at 603.569.7565.

Making the Tough Decision

The time may come when living safely at home is no longer a viable option. This is likely a difficult decision and may come with some resistance. If the concern is generated by dementia-related problems, it may mean caregivers need to make this decision.

Look for signs to help come to the best conclusion before an accident happens:

  • Memory loss or dementia can result in safety compromises like forgetting to turn off the stove or forgetting to take critical medications. Don’t wait for something serious to happen; consider neglect of these kinds of things as red flags.
  • Not answering the phone is cause for concern even if you find out your loved one is okay. Communication is key.
  • Cognitive decline to the point that someone is no longer able to understand simple instructions like how to use an alert call button makes ensuring safety difficult.

Making the decision to move from home is rarely easy. But if you think ahead you can take comfort in knowing that you or your loved one stayed at home as long as was safely possible.