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Managing safety issues when caring for older adults

Safety is an important issue when caring for older adults, and in particular, when caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Even with the best-laid plans, accidents can happen. Checking the safety of the home, keeping the person from wandering, and preventing him or her from getting behind the wheel after driving skills have declined are just some ways you can minimize hazardous situations.

Changes in home management skills

Over time, older individuals and people with Alzheimer’s disease can become less able to manage things around the house on their own. Alzheimer sufferers might not remember:

  • if they turned off the oven or left the water running.
  • how to use the phone in an emergency.
  • to stay away from dangerous things around the house, such as certain medicines or household cleaners.
  • where things are in their own home.

Create a safe home environment

Here are some things you can do in a home environment to help make it a safer place:

  • Simplify your home. Too much furniture can make it hard to move freely.
  • Get rid of clutter (such as piles of newspapers and magazines).
  • Install sturdy handrails on any stairways. Put carpet on stairs or add safety grip strips.
  • Put a gate across the entrance to stairs if the person has any problems with balance.

Use home safety devices

There are many safety devices that can increase the level of safety in a home.  Add the following devices to your home, if you don’t already have them in place:

  • smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in or near the kitchen and in all bedrooms.
  • emergency phone numbers (911, ambulance, poison control, doctors, hospital, etc.) and the home address near all phones.
  • safety knobs on the stove and a shut-off switch.
  • childproof plugs for unused electrical outlets.

Lock up or remove some items

Lock up or remove the following from your home:

  • all prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
  • alcohol.
  • cleaning products and dangerous chemicals (such as paint thinner, matches, scissors, knives, etc.).
  • poisonous plants — call the U.S. National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 to find out which houseplants are poisonous.
  • all guns and other weapons.
  • gasoline cans and other dangerous items often stored in the garage.

Reduce the risk of falls

To reduce the risk of falls, make sure the person being cared for has good floor traction for walking or pacing. Good traction lowers the chance that people will slip and fall. Three factors affect traction:

  1. The floor surface. A smooth or waxed floor of tile, linoleum, or wood could be a problem for an older person or someone with Alzheimer’s. Try to think of ways in which you might make the floor less slippery.
  2. Spills. Watch carefully for spills and clean them up right away.
  3. Shoes. Buy shoes and slippers with good traction. Look at the bottom of the shoe to check the type of material and tread.

When driving skills decline

A person with mild memory loss may be able to drive safely at times. But, he or she might not be able to react quickly enough when faced with a surprise on the road. This can lead to dangerous results. If the person’s reaction time has slowed, then he or she should not be allowed to drive.

The person may be able to drive short distances on local streets during the day, but might not be able to drive safely at night or on a freeway. If this is the case, then limit the times and places that the person can drive.

Signs that a person should no longer be driving

When a person can’t think clearly and make good decisions, he or she should no longer drive. New dents and scratches on the car are visible signs that reveal that the person should not be driving. Another sign is if the driver takes a long time to return from running a simple errand and cannot explain why it took so long —indicating that the person most likely got lost.

One way to find out if a person is still competent to drive is through observation. The person observing should watch the older adult drive at different times of the day, in different types of traffic, and in different road conditions and weather. If riding with the driver is not possible, the observer can follow the driver in another vehicle. Over time, a picture will emerge of things the driver can and cannot do well.

Some people with memory problems decide on their own not to drive. Others don’t want to stop driving and might even deny that they have a problem. As the caregiver, you need to explain why it’s important to stop driving. Do this in a caring way. Understand how unhappy the person might be, having to admit that he or she has reached this new stage in life and the limitations that it brings.

Ways to stop someone from driving

Here are some ways to stop older people and those with Alzheimer’s disease from driving:

  • Ask your doctor to tell the person to stop driving. The doctor can write “Do not drive” on a prescription pad, and you can show this to the person. Some states require doctors to tell them if a person with Alzheimer’s should no longer drive.
  • Contact your State Department of Motor Vehicles. Ask about a medical review for a person who might not be able to drive safely. He or she may be asked to take a driving test. The person’s license could be taken away.
  • Ask family or friends to drive the person instead.
  • If the person won’t stop driving, hide the car keys, move the car, take out the distributor cap, or disconnect the battery.
  • Find other ways for the person to travel independently. Transportation services include free or low-cost buses, taxi services, or carpools for older people. Some churches and community groups have volunteers who take seniors wherever they want to go. To find out about transportation services in your area, contact your local Area Agency on Aging or the National Transit Hotline at 1-800-527-8279.

Information courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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