By Beth O’Keefe RN Care Coordinator with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans, from the not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Service of New York
September 22nd is the first day of fall and the beginning of National Falls Prevention Week. This is the perfect time to remind older adults and their families about safety measures they can take to reduce their fall risk now, and throughout the year.
A study by Georgetown University and Phillips Inc. indicated that about 90 percent of Americans would rather stay in the comfort of their own home as they age. For someone who has spent years—or for many older adults – decades – living in the same home, it can be difficult to face physical vulnerabilities or admit that their home is no longer a safe harbor. As we age, our bodies become more vulnerable to the risk of slips, trips and falls. Home modifications can go a long way toward minimizing those risks and increasing home safety.
According to the National Council on Aging, every 15 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall. Falls can often begin a downward spiral of related and serious health issues – including impacts on functional ability and independence in activities of daily living. A fall, with or without a resultant injury, can heavily impact the quality of life for both active and homebound seniors. For many older adults, frequent falls can be the impetus leading to the consideration of nursing home admission.
As a Registered Nurse, with VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York, my job is to help older adults get the care and services they need to live safely in their home and in the community. Underestimating the risks associated with falls can lead to hospitalizations, serious illness, and functional impairments. It is well worth taking the time to add these simple home modifications to the older adult’s healthy living checklist. The following suggestions can be a foundation for safer mobility and minimizing the risk of falls.
Bathroom Safety. With potentially slippery surfaces and hard flooring, the bathroom can be very dangerous. Grab bars should be installed wherever extra support might be needed, such as by the shower or toilet and inside the bathtub or shower stall. If an older adult has any weakness or unsteadiness, a shower or tub seat should be used, and soaking or tub baths should be avoided. Floors should have non-slip/non-trip floor mats. The bathroom should have adequate lighting at all times, including utilization of automatic nighttime lighting of sufficient brightness.
Clutter-Free Walkways. Walkways should be clear of clutter, and common tripping and slipping hazards. Whenever possible, electric wires should not cross walkways; however, if this is unavoidable, wires should be covered or taped to walls/floor with electrician-approved tape. Throw rugs should be removed. All areas of the home should be well lit. Banisters and handrails should be securely anchored to wall studs, and strong enough to hold body weight. If an older adult uses a cane or walker, and lives in a home with more than one floor, a cane or walker should be kept on each level of the home to ensure that one is always accessible.
Kitchen Safety. With knives, open flames, and hot surfaces, the kitchen is an accident waiting to happen. Frequently-used items, such as food and utensils, should be stored at a convenient height to avoid reaching for higher shelves. This includes having pots and pans easily accessible, in order to avoid bending to retrieve from lower cabinets. Spills should be wiped up immediately to avoid any slips or accidents. Walkways should be kept clear and without any potential tripping or slipping hazards. Adequate lighting should always be used.
Bedroom Hurdles. Take a look at the layout of the bedroom and arrange furniture to create an unobstructed route around the room. Beds should be low enough so that feet touch the floor when sitting on the edge of the bed. Ensure that the floor is clear of any tripping or slipping hazards and that there is a straight path to the bathroom, as well as to all areas of the bedroom accessed. A bedside light should be available, and accessible, for any nighttime awakenings, including going to the bathroom. Automatic nightlights strategically placed throughout the home, including in the bedroom, are strongly recommended.
Rebuilding Strength. Staying as strong as possible is an extremely important way older adults can proactively prevent falls and maintain the maximum degree of independence possible. Actively working to maintain or improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength can decrease an individual’s risk of falling. On a daily basis, or as often as possible, it is beneficial to spend time outdoors. Research has shown that seniors benefit from spending time outdoors, with positive changes to mood and overall health.
Physical activity should be a part of everyone’s daily routine. For some older adults that may mean wheelchair calisthenics; for others if may be walking laps at home or building hallways, for others, it may mean walking up and down the stairs three times a day or walking to pick up the mail. Don’t forget to make sure that your loved ones wear proper footwear with rubberized soles, with tie or Velcro closures, and a closed back. Getting stronger will go a long way toward preventing trips and falls.
For more information about VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, please call 1-855-AT-CHOICE (1-855-282-4642) or visit www.VNSNYCHOICE.org.