Safety first for older guests

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2011 - 10:11 AM

Help older guests stay safe by taking some preventive measures around your home.

Photo: Paul Schmid, MCT

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The holidays are a time for gathering the generations together and while parents always want to make sure the home environment is safe for their little ones, it's also important to take a few special precautions to keep Grandma and Grandpa safe during their holiday visits.

When seniors are in a home environment different from their own, falls are the main cause of injury, according to Michael Johnson, executive director of home care and facility services for Senior Helpers in Bloomington.

"Some of the most common areas of concern include entryways with a step down into a room, furniture, handrails or lack thereof, and towel bars in the bathroom, which aren't intended to be used for grab bars," he said. "Take a look around and identify objects that older family members could find themselves reaching for during a fall -- some may actually make the fall worse."

If grandparents will be staying overnight, make sure common areas are well lit; keep night lights on in bedrooms, hallways and bathrooms.

In fact, the bathroom requires particular attention, said Jeff Wigren, community relations coordinator and fall prevention specialist for Senior Helpers; he also coordinates eight-week classes for seniors called "A Matter of Balance."

"The most serious falls occur in the bathroom. The single safest protective device is the shower stool; if you're going to have older guests in your home for a period of time, have one available," said Wigren. Local retailers that carry durable medical equipment often stock shower stools and toilet seat risers, another necessity for some older relatives.

Changes in blood pressure

We are all familiar with the sedentary periods that usually happen after large holiday meals, but with seniors, these can be problematic.

"Many falls happen due to changes in blood pressure. Make sure they are able to get up and down safely, especially if they have been sitting for a while," said Johnson. "This is also a good reason to encourage older guests to keep a small bell in their bedroom to alert other family members if they feel unsteady getting out of bed."

It is especially important to offset all that couch time with periods of activity -- a walk after breakfast or even some simple indoor exercises -- which is something kids and grandparents can enjoy together.

"Even 30 minutes of light to moderate activity three times a week can make such a difference in the general health of seniors," said Wigren.

Watch those medications

Another consideration when planning for older guests is storage of their medications. Set aside a special spot in the cupboard -- away from children -- so they can be easily accessed by the proper person.

It's also helpful if they bring information from their doctor listing all the medications they are taking, along with any other special instructions. This document can be very useful if seniors need to refill prescriptions during the visit or if a health emergency should occur.

Eating and drinking are always a big part of holiday celebrations and offer an opportunity to observe the habits of older relatives you might not see regularly.

"Seniors can often become indifferent to eating or may skip meals, but they really need to maintain a balanced diet and eat at least three times per day," said Wigren. "If you have to constantly remind Grandma to eat, it might indicate she's not eating enough when she is on her own."

Alcohol use can be another issue -- fine in moderation, but too much can affect balance and strength. If older relatives are drinking more than a moderate amount, it might be something to discuss with them or perhaps with their doctor.

Finally, if you observe new behaviors or other changes in an older relative, don't dismiss them but consider taking the next steps (talking to their doctor, discussing the situation with siblings) to find out what might be happening.

"Just as we would monitor developmental changes in our young children, when our loved ones are advancing in age, we need to be just as critical about observing the changes they are experiencing," said Johnson.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at tellus@startribune.com with "Your Family" in the subject line.

  • SAFETY TIPS FOR OLDER GUESTS

    • Prior to the visit, check the following rooms for potential safety hazards: kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, entryways and porch. Make sure sidewalks and driveways are clear of snow and ice.

    • If the senior uses a walker or wheelchair, plan ahead regarding the easiest entry point into the home. Check into the possibility of renting a temporary modular ramp.

    • For seniors traveling by air, contact the carrier or airport in advance and make a request for an elder escort pass that allows you to meet them at the gate if necessary. Also consider reserving a wheelchair for transporting them through the airport.

    • If an older guest does fall during a visit to your home, you can call the local fire and rescue department for what is known as a "lift and assist," available without charge. A medical professional, such as an EMT, can determine if your relative needs to be transported to the hospital.

    FOR MORE INFORMATION

    • Senior Helpers: resource information and services for families, www.seniorhelpers.com

    • Six Tips From the Mayo Clinic on Fall Prevention, www.mayoclinic.com/health/fall-prevent

    • Making Home Safe for Seniors, www.caring.com/articles/senior-home-safety

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