Home Safety Tips: How to Keep an Elderly Loved One Safe

If you are the point person for an elderly relative living alone, one of your chief concerns should be following basic elder home safety tips. You have probably spent time making your loved one's home as safe as it can be, but what if something does happen? Whether it's a personal medical emergency, a brief power outage or a natural disaster, you need an eldercare safety kit.

A Communications Center
Create a communications center in your elder's home to ensure that vital information is easy to find and use on a routine basis, advises Romie Myers, R.N., of FamilyCareGiversOnline.com, a Web site devoted to supporting caregivers. Many people use the kitchen as a convenient central storage location for this information, she says.

"Emergency workers such as firefighters are trained to go to the kitchen and check the outside and inside of the refrigerator for emergency information," Myers notes.
Anyone who routinely comes to the home and provides care should know where the communications center is.

An emergency information sheet (see sidebar) is the centerpiece of a plan to help an elderly person cope with a crisis, according to Joy Loverde, author of The Complete Eldercare Planner. You and your elder should document your network of emergency contacts.

"This list should be posted near every telephone," Loverde says. "But also on the refrigerator. A copy should be given to a trusted neighbor. Every family member should have a copy on their person, in their car and in their home.

According to Myers, many emergency personnel are trained to look for the Vial of L.I.F.E. (Lifesaving Information For Emergencies) inside the refrigerator. This is a clear plastic container (such as an empty pill container) with a copy of the important medical and personal information rolled up together with a photograph and stored in the door of the refrigerator, close to the handle. Place a note or a Vial of L.I.F.E. magnet (available from some local fire departments) on the refrigerator door. The refrigerator will provide some measure of protection to the information sheet in case of fire, flood or other major damage.

Safety Systems
You, your elder and your elder's network should devise a system for checking in on a regular basis so that the caregivers can be alerted when something is amiss. This might include a combination of:

  • A scheduled daily phone call.
  • Arranging for neighbors to stop by on a daily basis.
  • Having a neighbor watch the elder's patterns - picking up mail, running errands, etc. - for any worrisome changes.
  • Using a visual signal. For example, the elder might make a habit of hanging out a flag each morning to say, "All is well."
  • Using an electronic monitoring system or personal alarm system, if appropriate.

Fire Prevention and Safety
Prevent fires by:

  • Checking that outlets aren't overloaded.
  • Discouraging the use of candles.
  • Using whistling tea kettles and food timers that remind the elder that the stove is on.

Plan an emergency response to fire:

  • Remind your elder to leave the house and to call 911 before he or she calls you.
  • Hang or store fully charged fire extinguishers within easy reach. It's best if your elder knows how to use them, but Loverde points out that they should be on-hand even if the elderly person is not strong enough or is anxious about using them. Other people present in the home or neighbors may be able to use them.
  • Plan and practice at least two escape routes out of each room. Never use elevators. If your elder cannot use stairways, make special arrangements for help in advance.
  • Keep smoke and carbon dioxide detectors clean. Make sure to test them monthly and to change their batteries on a regular schedule.
  • If your elder can't hear well, Myers suggests purchasing a device that alerts your senior loved one with a flashing strobe light or a vibrating pad under the pillow.

Basic Household Safety
A few basic household items will help keep your elder safe:

  • Step stool - "This is so an elderly person is not tempted to climb on a chair," Loverde notes.
  • Extendable gripper - This can be used to pick things up off the floor so an elderly person doesn't have to bend over.
  • Nightlights - Use these in every bathroom, bedroom and hallway.
  • Nonslip rugs
  • Good shoes that grip the floor
  • Telephones - Loverde recommends large-size key pads that light up in the dark. She also recommends that every house have at least one cordless phone. "And, if an elderly person doesn't shy away from technology," she adds, "cell phones are great in an emergency."
  • Lighting - Myers suggests installing outdoor lighting to increase visibility around the elder's home.

Basic Emergency Items
In case of emergency, your elder should have these items assembled in a clearly labeled container so that everything can be easily found and ready to go if necessary.

  • Large toolboxes, with removable trays for better organization, make great safety supply kits," Myers says.
  • First-aid kit - Make sure that its contents are up to date and appropriate for your relative, Loverde cautions.
  • Two flashlights with working batteries.
  • A battery-powered radio - Make sure your elder knows which stations provide information in case of a disaster.
  • Extra batteries for the flashlights and radio.
  • Extra pair of glasses
  • Extra hearing-aid batteries
  • Extra equipment or medical supplies such as wheelchair batteries or oxygen.
  • Serial number, make and style of medical devices such as pacemakers.
  • Medical insurance and Medicare cards
  • Medical alert system (a wallet card or bracelet) - "It's important to have something that identifies hidden medical conditions if an elderly person can't talk," says Loverde.
  • Medical and personal information sheet -  A duplicate of the sheet posted in the elder's communications center.
  • Extra prescription medication

You and your elder should make plans in case of a power failure. "Find out from the provider of your elder's medical equipment what he or she should do in case of power loss," Loverde suggests.

Finally, you should notify your local emergency departments of any illness or disabilities your elder may have. Myers points out that some communities have a "fragile persons" registry or other advance registration.

Disaster Preparedness
The American Red Cross and eldercare experts recommend that you and your elder come up with plans for coping with natural disasters. This involves knowing what disasters could occur in your region and then making two sets of plans: one in case an evacuation is required and the other if residents are instructed to remain in place.

In addition to the basic safety items listed above, your elder should have:

  • A three-day supply of food and water - The American Red Cross recommends nonperishable food items that are ready to eat and one gallon of water per person per day. Store the water in small containers that an elder can handle.
  • Can opener - Choose a manual can opener that the elder can handle.
  • Nonperishable food for pets in the household.

Caregivers' Copies
Make sure that your elder's legal paperwork is in order long before an emergency occurs, Loverde advises. "You need to be sure that the legal documents are in place that allow you to be part of the decision-making for this person. That means a power of attorney form for finances and health care."

You should keep copies of your elder's:

  • Power of attorney
  • Advance directive
  • Will
  • Medical history
  • Emergency information sheet
  • House and car keys and/or access codes (for alarms, safes, etc.)

Sarah Bennett-Astesano is a former associate editor for Parenthood.com.

© Parenthood.com, used with permission.

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