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Accident Proof Your Home

Some Easy Tips for Preventing Falls

Tip Line Archive

Our homes are supposed to be our sanctuaries. The one place we can always feel comfortable, safe, and secure. For seniors and other people suffering from diminished physical capacity, however, the home can become a dangerous minefield. Falls and other mishaps are a leading cause of injuries to seniors. Seniors that have lost physical agility and strength, or have lost acuity of one or more senses become highly susceptible to accidents inside the home.

Dangers inside the home have a variety of sources. The five senses we use to react to our environment have a way of declining with age, most notably sight and hearing. Many seniors also require medications to maintain comfort and health, which can have negative impacts on a person’s mental acuity. How bright and sunny it is outside can also have a dramatic effect on lighting and a senior’s ability to see inside the home.

Because not all of these factors can be completely controlled, it is impossible to eradicate all dangers and prevent all accidents. One thing that can be done to compensate for physical problems is to make strategic alterations to our homes. Physical impairments make seniors more susceptible to building design elements meant for fully functioning people, such as stairways and other floor elevation changes, narrow doorways and halls, slippery floors, deep pile carpets, inconsistent lighting, and difficult to reach light switches, outlets, and cabinet or closet storage.

To make navigation around the home easier, doorways should be a minimum of 36” wide and hallways at least 48” wide. When a resident is confined to a wheelchair or uses a walker, it may be beneficial to widen doors to 40” and hallways to 60”. Doors should be easy to open, preferably of the two-way swing variety or pocket doors, and door knobs should be replaced with levers, or better yet, automatic openers with push plate activation. Stairways should have handrails on both sides, and chair lifts are also available for those that

Hardwood flooring should be maintained to avoid raised seams between boards, and the finish should be matte, never glossy as the gloss can cause glare problems. Tile flooring should be used sparingly or not at all. The grout lines and variations in heights of the tile edges can be a trip hazard. Smooth surfaced and glossy tiles can be slippery when wet, and also may exacerbate any glare issues. Consider sheet vinyl or other seamless flooring options. There are products with attractive and realistic faux stone and wood patterns, some with realistic textured finishes that are very attractive.

Another source of accidents that is oft ignored is reaching. Anything that seniors regularly reach for, whether in bed, in the bathroom, or in the kitchen, should be placed so residents don’t have to extend to the point of losing their balance. For instance, alarm clocks placed on the far side of a bedside cabinet can cause seniors to fall out of bed, particularly if they reach for it while in a semi-sleep state. Closets should be designed and organized to minimize reaching. In bathrooms, make faucets easily accessible by moving them to the side of the sink. The same should be done with items such as soap and toothpaste. In the kitchen, all appliances should have controls in the front, particularly cook-tops or ranges. Reaching over hot cook-tops is a recipe for nasty burns. Light switches and electrical outlets throughout the house, particularly in bathrooms and kitchens, should be placed at locations and heights to avoid reaching and bending over. There are many other items to consider, so we need to make reaching hazards a priority.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential modifications, and the list will vary depending upon the design of each home and the capabilities and condition of the residents. Almost any home can be made “barrier-free” if the budget is large enough, but even when money is tight, there are still many things that can be done to keep seniors safe.

have difficulty walking stairs. When the budget allows, residential elevators are probably the safest choice. Similarly, toilets, showers, and bathtubs should have strategically placed, sturdy grab bars to provide added balance. For around the bed, there are a range of adjustable grab bars, floor-to-ceiling poles and other devices to provide balance and strength. In bathrooms, a concept known as “wet rooms” eliminates having to step over ledges to enter a shower. There are also now available bath tubs with doors for the same purpose.

Problems caused by daytime glare can be eliminated with either window treatments or soft, non-glaring floor materials. The inability to distinguish subtle color differences can cause seniors to bump into obstacles. The use of sharply contrasting colors between walls and trim, and between floors and furniture can eliminate this problem. It is usually advisable to paint door trim bright white, with walls in a softer contrasting color. Be careful, though, not to go too dark on the walls. Dark walls may provide a stark contrast to white trim, but will also cause spacial orientation problems in low light because the walls may seem to almost disappear in the darkness. Adequate lighting is critical, particularly in pathways, and on/off switches for each room should be placed in multiple strategic locations so seniors never try to navigate in the dark or low light. And always, always keep all pathways completely free of clutter, including furniture.

Of course, steps and bumps in the floor should be avoided whenever possible. The height of raised doorway thresholds must be minimized, preferably to no more than ¼”. Area rugs must be used carefully, if at all, because the edges are a trip hazard for low-mobility or sight impaired individuals. Where wall-to-wall carpet is desired a short and smooth-cut pile will minimize tripping.