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'Senior-Proofing' Keeps Elderly Safe at Home

Council on Aging of NWFL

When a new baby is brought home, preparations have been made to keep the child safe from hazards around the house. But many seniors are also in need of many of the same protections.

According to the website www.myseniorsource.com about 7,000 elderly deaths are reported as a result of home-related accidents, while millions of others suffer injuries – through falls, burns, drowning, and other accidents.

“The transition from babyhood to youth is really very similar to the transition from adulthood into being and elder,” says Josh Newby is with the Council on Aging of West Florida, which has served older residents in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties since 1972.

About ten thousand Americans turn 65 each day, with the number of senior-related injuries and deaths expected to surge.

“Sometime our cognitive processes will slow down; sometimes our bodies may not be as able to react to certain challenges as it used to be able to,” says Newby. “So it’s very important to make sure that our home is ready to essentially age around us.”

Elderly people living independently are subject to a number of risks in the home, which is why some place their loved ones in assisted living facilities. For those preferring the comfort of their own homes, step one in senior-proofing is finding and tackling the hazards around the house.

“Whether it’s grab bars or railing to help with walking; making sure that dishes and hygiene products and those everyday items are easy to reach,” Newby says. “Even things like motion-activated lighting, and carpeting over wood floors can be very helpful.”

One of Newby’s recent discoveries is that dark-colored rugs can be a major hazard for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Josh Newby, Council on Aging of NWFL.

“It registers as a hole or some kind of void, and it scares them,” says Newby. “Also busy patterns on your clothes or on your pillows, or anything with zig-zag can confuse them and cause aggression. These everyday aesthetics that we add to our house can actually be mentally harmful for these adults, if they’re not introduced in the right way.’

While babies are fairly resilient – many tend to bounce rather than break – Newby says older people have lost that resilience over time. They can sustain potentially long-term and even life-threatening injuries if they’re left alone without any sort of help.

“As we age, our muscles and our bone structure become less reactive; they become slower,” Newby says. “And this can often cause overconfidence in some older adults; they used to say ‘Well, I used to be able to mop the floor in under ten minutes, no problem.’ So they don’t realize that they can no longer do those things as proficiently as they once could.”
Medical issues should also be a part of a senior safety plan. In 2014 -- the latest available figures -- falls involving senior injuries cost an estimated $31 billion in Medicare payments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Aging is one of the benefits of modern society; with modern medicine and sanitation we’re all living longer, and that has reached across all races and creeds and religions,” said Dr. Rodney Guttmann, Director of the Center on Aging at the University of West Florida, and a Director of Covenant Hospice.

As people get older, Guttmann says, they get better at covering up their mistakes. Beware of changes in behavior and motion – along with watching for some “red flags.”

“People who seem to be a little unsteady in their gait might be one of the simpler things to kind of look out for,” says Guttmann. “In terms of progression of dementia that might happen with aging is wandering. People who easily get lost, that’s another sign; [and] people who repeat themselves, a lot of repetition is another early warning sign for people to look out for.”

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Dr. Rodney Guttmann, Director of the UWF Center on Aging, and a Director at Covenant Hospice.

A positive attitude – which Guttmann calls “positive aging” – is also essential.

“When you talk to people who are 100 years or older and you ask them, ‘How is it you were able to live such a long, healthy, successful life?’ says Guttmann. “And they will tell you that being positive is one of the top-10 things that they do. And finding people to help you; you’re not alone. Support groups are [a] real benefit.”

The bottom line, says Guttmann, is there’s a silver lining when it comes to getting older.

“How often do we say, ‘I wish I knew them what I know now,’” says Guttmann. “You look band and go ‘Oh my gosh, how foolish was I? Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that or done that.’ And so with aging, definitely comes wisdom.”

View later life as a fine wine that gets better with age, advises Dr. Rodney Guttmann. But, he adds that there shouldn’t really be any separation of young, middle age and older.

“We’re all in it together, part of a family and something that impacts a child, impacts the family,” Guttmann says. “Something that impacts the grandparent, impacts the family. So it’s important for all of us to take care of ourselves, look after each other and do the best we can.”