We talk a lot about creating a safe home and especially preventing falls in older adults. Falling is such a serious predicament as people get older. It can lead to a TBI (traumatic brain injury) or broken bones – especially a hip fracture. This, in turn, can lead to more serious health issues and even life-threatening conditions.
Next month, September, is National Falls Prevention Month, but it takes more than thirty days – actually more than 365 days – to be on the lookout for a safe environment for people, and especially seniors. On the one hand, we can make a living space relatively safe to traverse – no sharp corners or edges, no loose flooring, plenty of lighting, stored items in cabinets and closets within easy reach, and more. On the other hand, it is impossible to create a totally safe living environment. Life happens, falls happen. Our challenge is to eliminate the obstacles that can affect a person’s mobility and navigation within their home and in the immediate yard surrounding their dwelling.
One thing we can do as aging in place professionals is to recommend and install grab bars in the bathroom – at least a vertical one near the entrance to the tub or shower. More are preferred and can be horizontal around the perimeter of the tub or shower wall, or they can be diagonal – partly from personal preference and partly as designed and recommended by an occupational or physical therapist assisting in the project. Grab bars come in many colors, finished, lengths, and styles. The important thing is that they are installed. If they aren’t there, no one can use them. Then, when there is a slip, people will grab the first thing that looks convenient – towel bar, soap dish, faucet, shower curtain, shower door handle, or the wall.
Slipping in or around the tub or shower can happen to anyone of any age or ability. People can become fatigued for various reasons, have muscle soreness from exercise or exertion, be dizzy or lightheaded from medications they are taking or an illness, have a leg, hip, or knee injury or condition that prevents placing full weight on a leg, foot, or ankle, or they just might slip from misstepping on the wet surface.
In addition to being in areas like the bathroom that present a unique set of circumstances for people trying to avoid falling or contact injuries (bruising or lacerations) because of wet or glossy flooring that may be slippery, hard surfaces that do not move when bumped or walked into or fallen against, and often the spaces are relatively small or compact.
As much as anything else in the home, distractions play a major role in injuries for seniors – regardless of what they are doing or which room in the home they are in at the time. We can have hard-surface, non-transition flooring that is completely smooth and level throughout the entire home, yet someone can be thinking of something else or looking elsewhere than right in front of them and walk into a piece of furniture, catch their shoe awkwardly as they step, or contact the wall. Maybe nothing happens, but maybe they suffer a bruise, cut, or fall. We did everything we could. The flooring was sound. There were no rugs or runners that presented any difficulty. Still, an injury could happen just because of a distraction.
If we think of driving on a clear, sunny day with no other traffic on the road immediately around us, we should be safe. However, a momentary distraction – playing more attention to the words of a song we are listening to, turning our head to glance as something that caught our attention as we passed it, or leaning over to retrieve something on the seat or floor next to us – could cause us to veer out of our lane or run into something such as a stationary object.
Cuts (from paper or sharp edges of boxes or other packing materials, knives, broken glass, or rough or protruding edges of furniture), burns (from hot liquids, hot pots and pans on the stove or soon after they have been removed from the cooling surface or oven, candles, certain light bulbs, and other heat generating sources), slips, stumbles, and falls (from standing on ladders and stools and attempting to reach too far or losing one’s balance) can happen in a home no matter how well it is designed. Therefore, we have to minimize the risk of contact injuries, slipping, walking into objects, and tripping or falling from misjudging changes in elevation or adjacent surfaces due to lack of contrast by designing specifically with such considerations in mind. Accidents happen, but we need to eliminate as much of the potential as we can and to help minimize the possibility of a serious injury when an incident happens.