Keeping Your Elderly Parents Safe: Equipment You Can Use to Prevent Falls
Seems kind of funny to be talking about keeping your parents safe, they were always the ones keeping you safe. Unfortunately this is just one area in which role reversal occurs as we all get older.
Approximately 1/3 of the adults over the age of 65 in the United States will fall this year, many requiring medical treatment. Falls can lead to bruising, painful strains, sprains, fractures, hemorrhage and death. Most of falls can be prevented with just a few minor home adjustments.
Night-lights help to softly illuminate a room so that when you wake up at night you can see to get to the bathroom or the doorway without running into furniture or tripping. It also helps to reduce confusion that sometimes occurs when you first wake up. (That happens to most everyone at one point or another). It makes common sense to use them.
But Grandma would have none of it. My Grandma lived alone and was very independent for many years. She lived in a small house in town that was built during WWII and that little house was the center of our family. And that house was pitch dark at night. How she could get around in there with the lights out was a mystery to me but she did so without any problem for many years.
Until one night, not long after the loss of her oldest son, she fell in bathroom and hit her head on the tub. She got herself up and went back to bed. A few days later she was throwing up and in the hospital with a bleed inside her skull that caused her to be confused and hallucinate. Thankfully that cleared up as the bleeding stopped and the area healed. Even so, it was the beginning of her decline, though she lived another 7 years. She never fully recovered.
Being the homecare nurse that I was, I began going through her house, making suggestions to prevent falls as she patiently listened, indulging me. Of course none of what I said impressed her and she adamantly refused the suggestion of a night-light.
“I can’t sleep with a light on,” she reasoned.
“Grandma, you won’t even be able to see it from your room,” I argued.
“Then what’s the point.” she countered?
“So you can see to get to the bathroom at night,” I explained.
“I been getting there just fine for years,” she assured me.
“Just try it,” I said.
I plugged the night-light in and back to work I went. The next day when I stopped by, it was unplugged. Nothing we tried would get her to budge on the nightlight. I don’t know why, but even despite a few more falls, she refused to ever use a nightlight.
She did however agree to use a medical alert device. Hooked up through her phone system, she could mash the button on the necklace she wore sending a signal to the monitoring service who in turn called her neighbor. She only had to use it a few times but it helped her to maintain her independence in her home much longer.
Medical alert devices are a great idea for seniors who live alone. When I first started working in home care, these devices were not widely available and were expensive to those on a fixed income. A fall often meant laying on the floor until someone found you.
I remember the first time I arrived at a home to find a patient laying on the floor. The door was locked and I could not get to him. Thankfully he hadn’t been there long and was able to crawl to the door and unlock it so I could help him up. He was lucky that time, but a few falls later and he was in a nursing home.
One afternoon I went out to admit a lady to our service who was recovering from a fractured hip. When I asked her what happened, she told me she was getting up to go to the bathroom during the night and fell.
“I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t reach the phone. I couldn’t even reach the bed covers to pull them on top of me and it was cold. To make it worse I wet all over myself when I fell. So there I lay, cold, wet, hurting and I could not do one thing to help myself,” she told me.
“How long did you lay there,” I asked?
“It was the next afternoon before anyone found me,” she replied.
I was horrified. How awful that must have been for her. And yet this story, with slight variations, is repeated daily, multiple times, throughout your neighborhoods.
Reducing the risk of falls starts with a few simple changes in your home including adequate lighting, clear walk-ways and wearing supportive shoes with a rubber sole. I have written out a check off list you use to go through your parents’ house and your own.
There are some tools briefly mentioned in that book that I want to expand on.
PikStix grabbers come in different lengths and are great for preventing falls because you don’t have to bend over which can throw you off-balance. My mom has one of these and she uses it to get the clothes out of the dryer, pick up things off the floor, reach things off overhead shelves, and reach the toilet paper under the cabinet. There is a weight limit, you aren’t going to pull a 5 lb bag of flour off the shelf with it, but it can reach that can at the back of the pantry.
Bed Rails are the next handy device to add to your tool box of helpful aides. They give your elderly parent something to hold on to for balance, to pull up on and may provide a sense of security from rolling out of bed. They will not keep someone who is confused in bed. We have learned the hard way that confused patients merely climb over the rail, making the fall from greater height. Side rails are for assistance only, not restraint.
Alarms for beds and chairs can help alert you to the movement of confused persons. There are pressure alarms which fit under the person and go off when the person moves off the pad. They had one of these under granny when she was in rehab after a fall. She said every time she turned over she had to be careful or the alarm went off.
The magnetic alarms have a small magnet with a string attached. The string is then clamped on your parent’s clothing, When they stand up, or sit up if in bed, the string pulls the magnet off the box and an alarm sounds. We use these on two residents where I work, one of them when he’s in his wheel chair. The other day I came out of a room to see one of the residents holding the box in this hand so as not to set off the alarm while he bent over to pick up something off the floor. Do not completely trust the alarms because there are moments when the patient is smarter than the caregiver.
On this particular gentleman we also use a floor alarm by his bed. When his feet touch it, the alarm goes off alerting us that he is getting out of bed.
The drawback is that he’s already up when we get there. His Parkinson’s causes him to move very slow so he seldom makes it off the mat before someone is there to assist him.
Do you have a parent that wanders? Dementia patients require an additional layer of safety interventions to prevent falls and injuries. Just because someone cannot remember your name does not mean they have forgotten how to unlock a door. More than one family has spent hours looking for a parent who has wandered off. Thankfully there are affordable alarms that can help you. Unfortunately, Medicare does not pay for these alarms, though it would actually save money in the long run.
If your parent is prone to getting out of bed in the middle of the night and falling you might also want to consider putting a mat on the floor by the bed though these are a bit pricey.
A less expensive solution is to put the mattress and box springs directly on the floor. It is harder for them to get up and if they fall, it is not far to the floor. The downside is you having to bend over to help them up or give them care.
In the bathroom step-in tubs and shower are your best bet but not many can afford to remodel. Here are some easy-to-install bars that clamp on the side of the tub. My grandma had one and it was very helpful.
These shower grab bars require a bit more effort to install. These are also good to install next to the toilet.
Ramps are used not only to get wheelchairs up and down steps but across thresholds also. You can find a variety to look at and cost compare here:
And here is one more device that you might find useful putting on the couch.
As you can see there are many tools you can use to prevent falls. Many of these items can be purchased second-hand, a few Medicare might help with. Check with your local medical supply company regarding Medicare assistance.
Preventing falls is one of the easiest things you can do to keep your elderly parents safe and healthy. For more information on caring for your parents sign up for my weekly newsletter and receive my e-book Keeping Your Parents Free From Falls as my way of saying thank you.