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Home Safety Comes Full Circle

Protecting your parents with home modifications

When we have babies it's a no brainer – we secure cabinet handles, install protective gates and cover the outlets. But as we, and our parents, grow older we are often not as vigilant about home safety – until there's an accident, of course. Then we're in panic mode and may not be sure where to turn. It's OK – you're not alone – so many of us don't see the effects of growing older until there's a crisis. So if you're in that situation, take a deep breath. And if you have come to this article in the prevention stage, good for you! Read on.

The need to address home safety is vital as your parents pass age 65 and become exponentially more susceptible to injuring themselves through a fall. Among people 65 years and older, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma, according to the Centers for Disease Control, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, each year in the United States, nearly one third of older adults experience a fall, the CDC reports.

Home safety becomes even more important as the number of seniors living at home, by themselves or with a family member, grows each year. Most seniors say they want to stay in their home as long as possible rather than go to assisted living or a nursing home. In fact, nine out of 10 people over 65 said they want to stay in their home as long as possible, reported AARP in a 1999 survey, and 82% of those want to stay in their home even if they need help caring for themselves.

Whether your parent has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, some other type of cognitive disorder, or is simply moving up in years and suffering from arthritis and declining vision or hearing, you should take the following steps to ensure that the home is as safe as possible:

  1. Conduct a home safety inspection. There are two ways to accomplish this: by yourself, by downloading and printing a Home Safety Checklist (like this one from the CDC), or by hiring a professional to do a safety checkup. To find a professional locally, try starting with your area senior services contact, typically a member of the community hired by the local governing body. An occupational therapist also may be a good source for educating you and your parent about preventing falls.
  2. Take care of the basics. Even before you complete a safety inspection, you can begin to create a safer environment for your aging parent by eliminating household clutter and by making a few minor modifications, such as installing night lights, replacing normal light bulbs with brighter ones, adding nonslip mats on bathroom floors and other slippery surfaces, and removing any scatter rugs in the home.
  3. Budget accordingly. Costs for home safety modification can be relatively inexpensive, if you are able to stick to the basics. The following are examples of modifications that, if needed, will increase your costs: (a) shower and tub grab bars in bathrooms; (b) hand rails on both sides of stairwells; (c) entryway leveling; and (d) significant plumbing or carpentry alterations, including flooring and bathroom modifications (to make the home wheelchair accessible, for example).

Building or buying for the future

If your parent or you are planning to build a new home or home extension to accommodate elder safety issues, then expect to pay between 5% and 20% more for a home that is elder-safe, according to Bill Wasch, president of Maple Shade Village in Middletown, Connecticut. Along with his daughter, a licensed architect, Wasch is constructing a seven-home community of completely accessible, elder-safe houses. Wasch realized the increasing need for such housing after operating a social service agency in Middletown where he came across numerous seniors in precarious, and even dangerous, living situations. In Connecticut, Wasch's homes will be 2,000 square feet and sell for approximately $420,000 (in 2008 estimated local real estate value), he says.