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Practical Caregiving

Is Your Loved One’s Home Senior-Safe?

By Jean Donahue

He slipped in the bathtub and couldn't get up.

She tripped on a throw rug and broke her arm.

He fell in the kitchen and hit the gas stove burner control and was overcome by gas.

While trying to change a light bulb, the ceiling fixture started shooting out blue fire causing her to jump, falling from the ladder and unable to turn off the light switch. The house caught fire.

These horrible incidents have actually happened to our elderly. Don't let anything like this happen to your loved one when you can help prevent it. Check your loved one's home for safety -- now and continually.

Walk around the house. In each room, evaluate what is safe and what is not safe for you and your loved one. Now, read the rest of this column and then walk around your house again.

Are there changes needed that you haven't thought about? If there are, you must get those things fixed right away so your loved one doesn't have an accident that you could have helped prevent. This warning is not intended to frighten, but you don't want to spend your life feeling guilty about something you could have fixed.

Let's walk through a typical house room by room for general ideas on safety. I'll just use the most common rooms because the same criteria apply to the rest of the house.

In All Rooms

Walking areas should have extra room and be free of obstacles. Make sure throw rugs, runners and mats are fastened securely so no one will trip. Rooms should be well lit with all electrical cords and outlets in good condition -- no frayed cords or bare wires.

Make sure there are telephones in rooms used most frequently, and have a portable phone you, as caregiver, can always carry throughout the house in case of an emergency.

Install smoke and carbon monoxide detector alarms. Outlets and light switches should not feel warm to the touch. They should be grounded to prevent electrical shock. At night use low-voltage night lights so you won't stumble over something or bump into a wall. All doors and windows should open and close easily, and locks should be sturdy and easy to operate for you and the frail elderly.


Make sure cooking and clean-up areas are well lit. A gas stove should have pilot lights with an automatic cutoff in case the flame goes out. If it's possible, shield stove knobs so they aren't easily or accidentally turned on if someone falls or brushes against them (stove burns are one of the most common injuries to the elderly).

There should be an exhaust fan venting outside. The microwave should not be above eye level so hot food can be removed without spilling. Small appliances should be unplugged when not in use. Everything you use should be in easy reach.

Have a step ladder or solid stool handy to stand on instead of using a chair when you need something stored on a high shelf. Either lower the temperature of the hot water heater or install an anti-scalding device. Plumbers can help on this point.


Use non-skid mats or gripper strips on the standing area inside and in front of the shower or bathtub. Install grab bars on the walls in the bathtub and near the toilet. Outlets should be the type to protect against electric shock. Install an anti-scalding device or turn down the hot water heater temperature so your loved one won't be scalded if they slip and accidentally turn up the hot water. Install a hand held shower head for ease of use by the elderly.


Be sure there are sturdy handrails and stairs are well lit. Enough said.

Universal Design

Builders today use a concept called Universal Design when they build a new home. They realize America is aging quickly and intend to accommodate the elderly. The basic principal is to design a home for the comfort and livability for every person, whether they are young or old, physically challenged or not, tall or short, big or small. Many existing homes are being remodeled for specific needs of caregivers and their elderly.

With universal design, kitchen shelves are lowered and have pull-down shelves. Drawers are easy to access. Handles are larger and easier to grasp. Many use cabinet doors with a glass front so elderly can easily see what's inside. Instead of a standard stove, universal design uses a cook-top with an oven at counter height. An anti-scalding device is always included to lower the faucet water temperature.

In the bathroom, universal design calls for fold-down shower seats, grab bars, elevated toilets, an anti-scalding device and pocket doors (doors that slide into the wall instead of awkwardly opening into a room).

Doors are wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair, thresh-holds are flush with the floor, lever handles are used, push-bars or U-shaped pull handles are recommended. The front door has peep holes at two levels for function and security.

Electrical outlets are placed at least 27 inches above the floor (no stooping!). Lighting is sufficient for the given area and there is strong lighting in every room. Light switches are rocker switches. Smoke detectors are installed in every room.

After researching this column I've decided that I need to do exactly what I am asking you to do – walk around my house and make the improvements suggested above. It would have been so much easier to take care of Mom and Dad if I would have had wider bathroom doors, for example. I didn't realize it then. The other doors were wide enough for wheelchairs but I couldn't get them into the bathroom after they no longer could walk.

In the kitchen, I recall Mom one time starting a fire by turning on the burner when we didn't know it. If the stove knobs were shielded or difficult to operate in some way, the outcome would have been different and we wouldn't have had a fire. We were lucky, but please don't let this happen to you.