An Eye for Safety: Helping a Parent Age in Place

using stairlift The stairs in my childhood home had been a source of fun for my brothers and me. We enjoyed rushing down to breakfast bumping down the stairs on our bottoms then hopping up to join our parents. To my mother, however, the stairs were a constant state of stress. She daily warned us to be careful, don’t play around the stairs, and ALWAYS reminded us to hold the railing. Each night she would drape a flimsy net across the top of the stairway to protect us from falling to our deaths.

She should have continued that habit for her and Dad. I became concerned when I noticed her constantly climbing the stairs on hands and knees—while wearing her robe and carrying a glass of water! In June 2009, I secretly suggested to Dad to get a stair lift for her. He agreed but didn’t find it to be an immediate necessity. A few days later, Dad slipped down the last two steps and landed on his backside with a painful ‘ooph’! Doubly concerned, I reiterated the need for the stair lift for both of them. Dad immediately went on the defensive and harshly lectured me on respect, ageism, and minding my own damn business.

Then on December 8, 2009, at age 72, Dad fell down the stairs and suffered extreme brain damage and paralysis, eventually dying from his injuries six years later.

Needless to say, I am sensitive to the probability of falls. I rarely hesitate to act on a safety improvement for my mother or my loved ones, even if it must come from my own finances.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • Falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide.
  • Adults older than 65 years of age suffer the greatest number of fatal falls.

Further data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states:

  • Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
  • Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.

Soon after Dad’s fall, Mom and I ordered the stair lift, refraining from the ‘closing the barn door after the horse escaped’ reality. Mom still needed several safety measures and I planned to get them done! Other immediate activities included:

  • Removing trip hazards, especially loose rugs.
  • Purchasing slippers or socks that were anti-slip.
  • Hiring a handyman to repair loose floorboards or uneven treads.
  • Purchasing a Personal Emergency Response System such as Great Call or First Alert.
  • Moving most used items within reach.

While my mother still lives 500 miles away, I make frequent visits to help with general care, providing companionship, and to maintain the safety watch. During my latest visit, I installed grab bars in risky areas (bathtub, shower, toilet) and anti-slip strips on tub and shower floors after observing some unsteady habits. When I stated my concern to my mother, she attempted to comfort me by saying, “I’ll get to it soon. It’s been on my mind too”. Then a few sentences later she admitted, “I’m getting so forgetful.” I was at the store purchasing equipment lessinstalling shower handle for safety than an hour later!

If you are providing long-distant care for a parent or are close enough to visit on a daily basis, use these tips to maintain household safety as your parent ages in place:

  • Check established safety measures to make sure they are functioning properly.
  • Replace, upgrade, or improve safety measures as needed.
  • Observe your parent’s activities: does she lean more? Is she unsteady? Is it tougher for her to accomplish tasks? Implement safety measures to accommodate these changes.
  • Listen to your parent! Comments like, “I’m unsteady when I get out of bed” or “I’m afraid I’ll slip getting out of the shower” are warning signs. Take swift action on these hints.
  • Keep an open communication with your parent. Request to attend occasional doctor visits to be part of the conversation but to also report observations and progress.

It’s tough to lose a parent to something so common, but it’s also harder to know that simple safety measures could have prevented these injuries. As your parent ages—in place or at a facility—be their guardian and take the action they are reluctant or forgetful to do themselves. If they fuss, tell them it’s because you love them and don’t want to lose them.

Kristen Edens
Making Midlife Better