For many people, their home represents their life accomplishments; this is especially true for individuals diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease and their caregivers. Most families want to keep their loved one at home for as long as possible so the person can be in familiar surroundings. Therefore, it is important to create a safe environment for your loved one to live in while they can still remain at home.
The following are suggestions for safe proofing your home. It is important to accommodate the needs of the caregiver as well as the senior with dementia. There are no fixed rules. Each person’s home is different, just like each person with dementia or Alzheimer’s related memory loss. Be sure to walk throughout the home as the disease progresses to monitor it for safety issues that may arise.
- Start with a Plan—Survey your home thoroughly prior to making changes. Look for areas and items that could be hazardous to your loved one. Survey the home as if you were the senior person with dementia then decide what area should be tackled first. The following suggestions can assist you with beginning your plan:
Simplify—As Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, it becomes more difficult for seniors to process environmental information. The simpler things are in the home, the fewer environmental inputs there are to interpret and distract the person.
Create walking paths throughout the home—Paths should be as straight and direct as possible. For example, a path from the kitchen to the dining room will need to be free of furniture and decorative items (ALL THROW RUGS SHOULD BE REMOVED).
Reduce clutter—Open spaces make both access and decision making easier, while decreasing the potential for over-stimulation.
Utilize labels—Labeling areas and items in the home may provide visual cues to maintain the senior’s independence within the household. For example, attaching pictures of silverware outside the utensil drawer or hanging a “BATHROOM” sign on the bathroom door. It is important to use symbols and/or the language the person can relate to at their current level of function. Therefore, it may be necessary to change the kind of labels you use as the cognitive level changes.
- Identify “Zones” in your home – Think of your home in terms of zones as you start to develop a plan. As you survey your home, look at all cabinets, drawers, doors, and living spaces as one of the following zones:
Danger Zone — This is an area that should be off-limits to your loved one. This zone includes any places, objects or features that may be potentially dangerous. These types of rooms should be secured and can be used to store breakables, tools, chemicals, or any other items deemed unsafe for seniors with dementia. Doors leading to these rooms should be kept locked and alarmed if possible.
Examples include the garage, workshops, kitchen, computer rooms, etc.
If you cannot lock these areas, then removing dangerous items and/or disabling potentially dangerous applications and machinery is a must.
Respite Zone — This space should be considered a sanctuary for the caregiver. This is a place where the caregiver can relax undisturbed and conduct personal affairs. Having a place to get away and have time alone can greatly reduce burnout and stress. Examples include: a renovated attic, a spare room or office in the home.
Safe Zone — This zone should include everything else in the house not identified as a danger or respite zone. It is preferable to safety-proof a room than declare it off limits. As much of the house as possible should remain available to the senior with Alzheimer’s to wander, hide things, rummage and exhibit the behaviors that are common with the disease. This zone should be free from agitating or harmful situations.
The following are helpful hints to creating safe areas:
Lighting — Reducing shadows and dark areas in the home can help eliminate sights that may be misinterpreted or trigger confusion. Ways to enhance lighting include adding night-lights to hallways, pathways and bathrooms, and replacing light bulbs in lamps with brighter wattages.
Bathrooms — This room can be one of the most dangerous rooms in the home. Possible dangers include: slips and falls, burns, poisoning, cuts, electrocution, and drowning. The following are ways to create a safer bathroom:
- Safety proof or relocate wall hooks, glass shelves, throw rugs, mouthwash, laxatives, sleeping aides, cough syrup, and other medications (prescription and over the counter).
- Remove all electrical appliances that can be dropped in water: electric razors, lighted portable mirrors, space heaters, irons, electric rollers, hairdryers, small radios or TV’s.
- Modify the door to give access to the caregiver in case of an emergency (possibly remove the lock, move it to an unusual place, or have it specially keyed)
- Install firmly mounted grab bars along the wall of the bath/shower and toilet. Consider shower seats and adding non-slip floor surfaces to wet areas.
- Consider eliminating exhaust fans that whirl or make noise, as this may cause further confusion and/or irritation.
Kitchen—Dangers may include the same found in bathroom zones. Reducing items on shelves and cutting out pictures and taping them on cabinets to identify its contents are just two ways to simplify decision making and eliminate confusion for your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Eventually the kitchen may become a danger zone and off limits as the disease progresses. The following tips can be useful for safety proofing your kitchen:
- Remove products, appliances or other items that may be dangerous and accessible such as stove knobs, oven door handles, and chemicals.
- Consider installing a childproof lock on the oven to prevent it from being turned on and forgotten, as well as, being used to store or hide household items.
- Use the fuse box or install timers to control electrical outlets for stoves, coffee makers and other appliances.
- Windows & Doors—Some people with Alzheimer’s dementia will never wander; however, most do. It is important to take the necessary precautions before your loved one exhibits this behavior to ensure their maximum safety.
- Make “Safe Zone” doors easy to use. Door levers are easier to operate than round, smooth, hard to grip knobs.
- Install safety handles, locks and/or alarms on all doors that lead outside or to “Danger Zones.”
- Make sliding glass doors as visible as possible. Install decals at the person’s eye level to prevent the person from walking into the glass door.
- Reduce glare or reflections from windows that can be misunderstood by your loved one.
Preparing your home to care for a senior with Alzheimer’s Disease or any dementia related disorder is difficult. It is important to plan ahead rather than react to a crisis. Careful planning, foresight, knowledge, and patience is needed to safe proof your home.