Entertaining Older Relatives:
Simple Steps to Reduce Home Hazards
By Lisa M. Petsche
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Did you know that falls are the primary cause of injury and hospitalization for older adults, and that half of those injured do not regain their former level of independence?
Health- and age-related changes that contribute to falls include arthritis, decreased sensation in the feet (known as peripheral neuropathy), loss of strength, visual impairment, balance problems and the use of certain medications.
Hazardous conditions in home environments are the other major cause of potentially serious spills.
If guests to your home this holiday season will include frail relatives, extra planning and preparations are advisable, to help ensure their safety.
Before extending an invitation, determine if senior relatives have any special needs or limitations. Then go through your home and the surrounding property to check for potential problem areas. Consider the following:
- Is parking available close to the entrance? Are the driveway and walkways level and in good condition?
- Are entrances and interior doorways wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair? If a prospective guest uses one, find out the width of it and measure to be sure.
- Are all areas of your home that guests will need to access - entrance, living room or family room, bathroom, dining area if there’s going to be a meal, and sleeping area if they’re staying overnight - on one level? If not, are prospective guests able to navigate stairs? If entrance steps are the only barrier, look into renting a portable ramp from a medical supply store.
- Are porch steps and interior stairways in good repair, and do they have a non-skid surface? Are steps evenly spaced and moderate in height? Are there handrails – preferably on both sides – and are they secure? (Ideally, rails should project past the top and bottom steps.)
- Is there adequate lighting throughout your home, including in closets, hallways and stairwells? (If necessary, get battery-powered dome lights that easily attach to the wall.) What about at entrances and along outdoor paths?
- If your home can’t accommodate an older relative’s needs: for a one-on-one get-together, take him or her out to a restaurant that’s accessible. If you're organizing a family gathering that includes the person, consider another member’s home, a restaurant with a private dining room or a community hall, depending on the size of the guest list.
Preparing your home
- Ensure outdoor walkways are clear of clutter and debris. Be prepared with the necessary supplies for clearing snow and ice.
- Replace burnt-out light bulbs, indoors and out. Consider using higher wattage bulbs in place of low-watt ones.
- Remove clutter in rooms, hallways and stairwells. If necessary, rearrange furnishings so guests can move within rooms freely and easily. Relocate excess pieces to a spare room.
- Put away furnishings on casters. Also remove items that might pose a tripping hazard, such as footstools and floor plants.
- Ensure walkways are clear of electrical and telephone cords.
- Don’t allow decorations to block doorways or pathways through rooms. Be prepared to scale down decorating if necessary – for example, by using a tabletop tree instead of a full-size one.
- Collect pet toys and stash them away. Do the same with grandchildren’s toys, unless your guests will include youngsters, in which case keep all toys in the corner of one room.
- Ensure throw rugs and scatter mats have a non-skid backing. Better yet, remove them, since they're one of the most common causes of falls.
- Have non-skid slipper socks available if you wish guests to remove footwear at the door. Be aware, though, that some older folks may need to keep their shoes on to ensure proper support.
During the visit
- Keep lights on in all areas guests might need to access, both inside and outside.
- Keep pets - especially high-energy kittens or puppies - in an area separate from the entertaining zone, so they don’t startle guests. Bear in mind that sleeping cats and dogs are also a tripping hazard.
- Reserve for senior guests some chairs that have arms; the higher and firmer the seat, the better.
- Be cautious about serving alcohol, which can impair balance.
- If a guest experiences a dizzy spell, have him or her immediately sit down until it passes, and rise slowly when they’re ready to stand.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.