Health Care and Small Business & Startups

Falls present obstacle to keeping seniors in their homes

A sweep of the structure can prevent many accidents.

September 27, 2013
| By Pat Evans |
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Falls present obstacle to keeping seniors in their homes
Stairs, area rugs and uneven floor surfaces all present potential dangers for homebound seniors, especially those suffering from dementia. Courtesy Thinkstock

A little more than 10 years ago, Jeff Swain took a call from his dad’s friend.

Swain’s father had fallen and had laid on the floor for more than 16 hours. Without the friend stopping by, he likely might have died, according to Swain.

“He probably should have died,” Swain said. “He was on the floor for 16 hours — dehydration and other things could have set in.”

Shortly after that incident, Swain and his wife started Homewatch CareGivers. Despite having no health care experience before starting the business, Swain — who left a position in marketing, sales and advertising in the food industry — thought his fresh ideas for the home health care industry would be welcomed.

“Some health care services are a very clinical, medical model. They have a nurse-patient mentality,” Swain said. “We like to think the client is the boss and they deserve to be pampered.”

Swain currently is focusing on senior falls, which he cites as the leading cause of death for those over 65 years old. More than 11 million senior citizens fall every year, according to Swain.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s not like cancer or auto accidents: Falls can be prevented.”

A fall can badly injure a senior citizen and keep him or her in a hospital and rehabilitation program for months. But falls often can be prevented by having someone — for instance, an adult child — sweep the house looking for likely causes.

Two likely causes that can be dealt with easily are throw rugs and loose cords. “Just throw them out,” Swain said.

However, most falls happen in the bathroom, according to Swain.

“It’s not sexy,” he said, “but grab bars in the shower help a lot. Something might cost $30, but it’s better than $15,000 to $20,000 in hospital bills (and) months in rehab.”

Another culprit to watch for is steps, especially when they have the same floor covering as the floor. “It’s big for people with dementia,” he said. “If there’s not contrasting colors on stairs, they can get confused.”

Unfortunately, pets also are a major cause of falls, so the benefits of pet companionship must be weighed against the possibility of tripping over them.

“A woman tripped on her dog and ended up in rehab for three to four weeks,” Swain said.

Lighting plays a large role in safety, as well. The better lit an area, the safer it becomes.

Zero-step homes, a term with which builders are acquainted, are helpful in preventing falls. Everything in a zero-step house is built on the same level so there are no elevation changes to trip up the elderly.

“Older folks’ senses are deteriorating,” Swain said. “They have to troubleshoot.”

An AARP study found that 95 percent of elderly people want to continue to live on their own, and Swain said it’s his mission to assist in making that happen.

“None of us wants to ask for help,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride in living alone, and a fall can take that away.”

Swain gave the Business Journal a list of helpful tips to prevent falls:

Clear a walking path through the home. Those living with dementia may have a hard time recognizing the danger of a loose rug, unsteady footstool or electrical cords stretched across the floor. Removing tripping hazards and keeping pathways clear can help prevent falls.

Arrange for adequate lighting. Dementia and old age can affect vision and cause illusions and misperceptions. Make sure the home has enough lighting in each room to reduce visual difficulties. People with dementia might misinterpret what they see, so reducing dark areas and shadows is vital.

Provide visual cues. People with dementia may have difficulty visually separating similar colors and also separating objects from their background. It is helpful to define the top and bottom of a staircase through the use of contrasting colors.

Consider unmet needs. A person living with dementia may start to wander as their condition progresses. This may lead them into unsafe areas. Wandering often signifies an unmet need a senior is trying to satisfy. For example, they may be looking for the telephone because they always used to call their spouse at 5 p.m. Instead of trying to stop the wandering, try distracting or redirecting the activity to avoid raising a person’s anxiety or frustration level.

Keep important things by the bed. A major issue for people living with dementia is confusion at night. Restless nights can leave them tired and unsteady. To help prevent wandering at night, keep important items on a bedside table, including water, a light source, eyeglasses, tissues and the telephone.

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