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8 adjustments to make at home to help prevent trips and falls

A gerontology professor weighs in

Water spill on tile flooring Credit: Getty Images / LENblR

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Jon Pynoos will never forget the home assessment where an elderly mom climbed to the top of a wobbly ladder with no support.

“She reached into the highest cabinet to pull out a very heavy bowl,” says the PhD, co-director of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence, and a gerontology professor at the University of Southern California, describing the incident as the seconds ticked by slowly. “Her son covered his eyes with his hands the whole time—he couldn’t believe it.”

Pynoos has been into countless aging-in-place homes during his career, but this one was particularly notable because it was a virtual checklist of what not to do.

As the number of elderly in the U.S. continues to rise—along with the number of those who age in place—the CDC reports staggering statistics on the dangers of falling. One out of five of these falls causes a serious injury such as a head injury or broken bones, which often impacts seniors’ ability to live independently afterward.

Pynoos and Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) contractors offer insights on the top ways to eliminate fall and trip risks for seniors at home.

1. Keep necessities low and horizontal

Low white, horizontal cabinet drawers in kitchen.
Credit: Getty Images / Bogdanhoda

With low, horizontal cabinets everything you need is at the tip of your fingers.

Pynoos suggests removing the need to use a ladder or a step stool in the first place, and to get creative by thinking more horizontally than vertically.

“Ladders in and of themselves are risky,” he says. “Anything seniors use routinely should be put on special lower shelves. And, they could think about using items that aren’t as heavy as they age.”

Installing bright, color-coded drawers in cabinets—especially ones that pull out—is something Dan Bawden recommends for a quick storage upgrade. The president of Legal Eagle Contractors in Texas says the color contrast makes it easier for those with strained eyesight to differentiate what’s where; plus, seniors won’t have to scramble in the kitchen to reach the pan they need which is in the back.

“That’s Murphy’s Law,” jokes Bawden.

2. Downsize to cooking for one

Older woman making a smoothie portion for one.
Credit: Getty Images / Adamkaz

Utilizing your microwave not only reduces food waste, but also cuts down on clean up afterwards.

More than half of the 35.4 million Americans who live alone are age 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This can be advantageous because these folks only have to cook for one person, says Pynoos.

Using a microwave regularly is not only easier, but can prevent lifting heavy, hot pans from the oven to a higher surface like a countertop or table. Microwaves can be easily plugged in on a countertop, too, or installed easily underneath a counter by a contractor.

Reducing the number of dishes one has that need to be stacked, too, can go a long way to simply reusing the same ones over and over, advises Pynoos.

3. Prevent bathroom hazards

Hand gripping railing in bathroom
Credit: Getty Images / Sasirin Pamai

Grab bars offer more stability if needed in an emergency situation.

While kitchens may be a fall hazard because there’s a risk of water falling on a hard floor, the biggest trip hazard by far is the bathroom, says Pynoos.

He advises having a professional install grab bars and a higher, “comfort height” toilet.

Another simple fix is putting in a bath mat—but only those with non-slip grips. Ideally, though, seniors would update their flooring when appropriate.

“It’s always better to have areas more illuminated than not,” says Pynoos. “However, shiny porcelain surfaces create glare and sometimes you can’t see that there’s water on the floor.”

Larger grout and some of the newer, slip-resistant ceramic or porcelain options (or even affordable and cushier vinyl flooring) is what Bawden recommends.

4. Keep your floor as level as possible

Man wearing pajama pants walking across hard wood floor.
Credit: Getty Images / Eugenekeebler

Accent and area rugs that aren't secured to the ground pose a serious threat to seniors.

Carpet isn’t the be-all and end-all to brace a fall, says Pynoos — in fact, it can sometimes be worse than other flooring options.

“People like fluffy designer carpets, but if you’re thinking of the future, the flatter the better,” he explains. “Everything should be as flat and as level as possible, because you won’t see wear and tear, wheelchairs and walkers can move over it, and you won’t trip.”

It’s also best to get rid of accent rugs that aren’t permanently installed. “I was in a really nice home where a lady put a carpet on the carpet to cover a stain—having those edges there to trip over isn’t worth the risk,” Pynoos says.

5. Beware of pets

Brown and white french bull dog on couch.
Credit: Getty Images / Edwin Tan

Small companions like dogs and cats can easily be overlooked in dim lighting.

It may seem like common sense, but the same kind of companion that can create small messes can also lead to bigger trouble. Pets—and their toys and food—are “fall hazards running around,” says Pynoos.

He advises putting a small bell on animals’ collars.

Since kibble and water can be “slobbered all over,” having a mat for food that’s not in a common pathway is ideal.

And, as for toys, Pynoos—who has three dogs—makes a concerted effort to put away all of their playthings at night in a special box. Bright colors are best, especially reds and yellows, since seniors tend to be color-blind in the blue/green range.

6. Invest in longer lasting lights

Motion sensor mounted to living room wall.
Credit: Getty Images / Gorodenkoff

Motion sensor lights save energy and are more accessible to seniors and those with disabilities.

Vibrant lighting is just as important as how it's powered. LED bulbs last longer, which reduces the need for someone to help climb a ladder and change them, says Pynoos. LEDs are also brighter, and dim lighting can be challenging for those with aging eyes.

Going cordless can also be a huge help, because it reduces tripping risks, says David Karas, a contractor based in Massachusetts. But, like Pynoos, he also cautions that glossy flooring might cause a reflective glare with brighter lights.

Pynoos says that “one of the best” things to have a professional install is motion-sensor strip lights for those twilight trips to the bathroom. Another (more inexpensive) fix is battery-operated task lights that have adhesive strips that homeowners can affix themselves.

7. Keep your outdoor area bright and steady

Patio deck outdoors lit up at night
Credit: Getty Images / Volgariver

Lighting the exterior of your home is equally as important as the interior of your home.

Proper lighting should extend to both inside and outside the home, says Pynoos—where weatherization is key, especially at thresholds. It’s there that going from a dry to a wet surface can be slippery, and raised surfaces can create trip hazards.

“It’s best to have a light on the first and second step, if you can have it both inside and outside your house, the better,” he advises.

Stairs can be especially dangerous, because “falling from a height could injure a knee or involve a head injury,” says Pynoos.

He advises investing in upgrading exterior stairs that may have cracks or chips, and also adding handrails on both sides that arthritis-prone seniors can grip.

8. Follow doctor’s orders

Female doctor discussing notes with her female patient.
Credit: Getty Images / Lordn

Taking the advice of a trusted doctor before adjusting your home for safety is the smartest route to take.

Neither retirees nor their loved ones without training should expect to be experts when it comes to home safety assessments, says Pynoos.

He recommends getting a referral from a doctor for an occupational therapist to come on-site and perform assessments. The service is usually covered by insurance.

Falls are also not strictly related to seniors’ environment, he advises.

“The reality of falls is we can do everything to improve the environment, but falls are multi-causal. Your doctor should ask you what medications you take and whether they make you dizzy. They should monitor your gait and see if you need a walker or a cane,” he says. “Safety is not as ‘easy’ as making a bathroom wheelchair accessible.”

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