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Is It Time to Fall Proof Your Parent’s Home?

As she advanced through her 70s, Sahar Whelan’s mother became less and less mobile due to a heart condition. Eventually, her activity became so restricted she couldn’t get up to answer the front door. Bathing became a monumental challenge.

“She had to sit on the edge of the bathtub with a seat propping her up and me sitting there to ensure she didn’t fall backwards,” recalls Whelan, a Toronto-area pharmacist. “All we could do was pour water over the areas of her body we could reach and quickly clean.” Whelan’s father also faced bathing challenges.

Home adjustments are key to accident prevention

Ilene Cohen-Ackerman, an occupational therapist with the Arthritis Society, encourages seniors to stay as fit as possible. “I advise them to maintain muscle strength and balance through exercise and activity. If they are strong, they can potentially catch themselves before they fall.”

One critical step in preventing accidents at home is to make adjustments to seniors’ living spaces. Cohen-Ackerman advises seniors to remove several items from the home, such as loose floor mats and step stools. “These stools are not a great idea because our sense of balance weakens as we age and increases the risk of falls,” she explains.

“ I want to make their home a wonderful place for them. They took care of me. Now it’s my turn.”

The couple’s lives improved when they had a walk-in tub installed. “They can now sit comfortably in the tub and pour water using a handheld device. It’s a huge relief,” says Whelan.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that falls are the leading cause of injuries among Canadians 65 years and older. In fact, 95 percent of all hip fractures are directly attributed to them. And approximately half of all falls among seniors occur at home.

Like Whelan’s parents, many seniors with mobility challenges have discovered that, with some adjustments to their home, they can continue to live there safely and happily.

Cohen-Ackerman also advises seniors to add some items to their homes. It’s important to have hand railings on the stairs, for example, because many accidents occur when seniors walk up or down the stairs holding onto the wall. The stairs should not be slippery because seniors with limited use of their hands have more difficulty holding onto railings and might not be able to steady themselves if they fall.

Bathrooms pose greatest risk of all the falls in the home, nearly 80 percent happen in the bathroom and most involve getting in or out of the bathtub. For that reason, many seniors use bathtubs with features such as grab bars and hand grips. Walk-in tubs are popular because, as Whelan can attest, they allow seniors to enter the tub without climbing over its side.

Cohen-Ackerman sees a “huge benefit” to the tubs in terms of safety and adds that being immersed in hot water, which can be circulated through jets, is soothing for seniors with arthritis and other painful chronic conditions. “Some seniors are hesitant to make adjustments to their homes because they feel like it’s ‘giving in’ to old age,” says Cohen-Ackerman.

“They should try to shift their thinking and to see adjustments as a positive step, because it will allow them to stay active longer.”

Cindy Leonard of Canadian Safe Step Walk-In Tub Co. adds that a risk assessment will determine what adjustments should be made. “Seniors advance through three stages: the ‘go-go’ stage, the ‘go-slow’ stage, and the ‘no-go’ stage. If they get a walk-in tub in the first stage it will prevent accidents later on,” she says. “That will allow them to stay in their homes longer.”

Whelan feels relieved since improving the safety of her parents’ home. “My parents’ lives are much more comfortable now so they won’t have to move somewhere else. I want to make their home a wonderful place for them,” says Whelan.

“They took care of me. Now it’s my turn.”