When Nancy Arnegard, 71, began falling a few years ago due to a degenerative disease, she moved in with her daughter, Cece Zavala. But changes needed to be made to the home to prevent more falls.
Zavala installed grab bars in the bathroom and kitchen, ramps for the exterior doors and garage, extra lighting and more.
She knew what to do because she’s a certified aging-in-place specialist who also has a home modification certificate — meaning she’s trained to help others arrange their homes to live comfortably and safely now and in the future.
“The home modifications we made allowed my mom to live safely at home for much longer than anticipated,” says Zavala, of Sacramento, California. “We can create absolutely gorgeous environments that fit in and age with people. Sometimes it’s just making slight changes here and there.”
That’s important, because 77 percent of adults 50 and older want to stay in their homes as they age, an AARP survey found. Their homes, however, may not be suited to their wishes. The risk of falling rises with age, and most falls happen at home. AARP’s free HomeFit Guide features smart ways to make a home comfortable, safe and a great fit for people of all ages.
“Not every fall causes a catastrophic injury that changes your life. But when they do happen, they can be devastating,” says Kathryn Daniel, an adult/gerontological nurse practitioner and associate dean for academic affairs in nursing at the University of Texas at Arlington. Falls can lead to broken bones, like a fractured hip, which can make it hard to get around, do everyday activities or live independently, she adds.
Simple changes can be made in and around your home to help prevent falls and eliminate tripping hazards. Here are 10 suggestions.
1. Remove scatter rugs
Remove throw rugs throughout the home that are easy to trip over. If you must have a rug in the bathroom, make sure it has a no-slip bottom.
“When you’ve lived in a place for a number of years you can collect a lot of clutter, and that can become a fall risk,” Zavala says. Remove items, such as stacks of books or boxes on the floor, that you may trip over or that can cause harm if you fall.
3. Keep pathways clear
Clear pathways of trip hazards — such as clutter, power cords or extra furniture — so that it’s easier to move around. This includes hallways as well as the route around your bed to the door. Get electrical cords with flat plugs or place rubber strips over cords.
4. Fix uneven surfaces
As people age, vision changes may mean their depth perception isn’t as good as before, and they may not see the details of walking surfaces. Fix uneven walkways and steps inside and outside the home to help prevent falls. Consider adding a contrast color to floors, such as a colorful carpet on a hardwood floor instead of beige, so any surface changes are clear.
5. Shine a light
Good lighting is important to illuminate pathways and surfaces inside and outside the home. Open curtains or blinds to let in natural light. Add extra lighting, such as night-lights in hallways and toe-kick lights or light strips on steps, where needed. Consider motion-sensor lighting inside or outside for ease of use.
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6. Secure the bathroom
Install a higher toilet or a seat extender, which are better for people with arthritis or knee problems. Other fall-prevention changes include using nonslip rugs, adding a shower chair and installing grab bars near the shower, tub and toilet. “Design companies have become hip to this,” Zavala notes. “Now there are absolutely gorgeous grab bars that come in colors and with prettier finishes or decorative elements.”
7. Step up
Add a railing along stairs — or on both sides of steps — to help navigate inside or outside your home. Attach blue packing or painter’s tape to the edge of steps so they stand out. Consider building a ramp — instead of steps — that leads to the front or back door.
8. Take stock of furniture
Decrease the amount of furniture throughout your home so there are fewer obstacles. If you can afford it, replace sharp-edged furniture with pieces that have soft, rounded edges to reduce the risk of injury should you fall.
9. Check your vision
Since poor eyesight can lead to falls, older adults should get an eye exam once a year. You may need glasses, have an age-related condition like cataracts or need to update your eyeglass prescription. Cataracts can be removed, and Medicare typically covers the procedure.
10. Strengthen muscles
Age-related muscle weakness and deteriorating balance also can contribute to falls. Take brisk walks for 30 minutes three times a week to strengthen your leg muscles, Daniel suggests. Before walking, do some light stretches, such as easy bends and knee flexes while holding onto a chair. Exercises like tai chi and gentle yoga can help improve your balance.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.