If you have a loved one living with you who has a diagnosis of some type of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, you must take steps to ensure their safety in your home. You will be challenged every day in ways you never dreamed possible, and your goal will be to keep that loved one safe from harm in your home. That is much more easily said than done, and I would like to offer some important tips for you to consider:
Even if this person has lived in this home for many, many years, they will eventually forget that fact, and attempt to leave to “go home” to a home they remember when they were young. They will have vision changes such as loss of peripheral vision as well as depth perception, so that means all stairs should be blocked off because they will not be able to see them. Even if they’re quite used to using those stairs, the vision changes and the brain damage will not allow them to really “see” them and they will fall up, or down, them. Don’t wait for a fall to occur, block the stairs off well before an accident happens. Usually, baby or pet gates are effective deterrents.
One of the most important safety measurements you can take is to install extra locks on all exit doors. You really have no idea when this person will awaken at 3 a.m. and wonder where they are and attempt to “go home” to a home they are remembering when they were 20 years old. Sometimes it can be as simple as putting those small deadbolt locks up high, or down near the floor, on the doors. People with dementia will not usually look up or down, they will just know the door won’t open. If you’ve recently moved a parent into your home, realize they will not remember they now live there and will be at very high risk for leaving to “go home.” Sometimes, simply placing a black mat in front of the door will prevent them from going out because they may see only a “hole” and won’t step on it—but you need to know if that’s the case with your loved one. You need to know if they see the “hole” or the mat.
Throw rugs in the home are a true hazard to anyone with dementia because they begin to shuffle their feet and walk with a different gait. Falls are a part of dementia, and any throw rug will greatly increase their chances of falling. Again, the changes in vision will also not allow them to properly judge how to navigate on rugs. Remove all rugs, especially the ones in the bathrooms. It’s okay to use a non-slip bath mat when they are taking a bath or shower, but remember to pick it up when finished.
Take a walk through your home and note any glass-topped furniture. You should think about replacing those items because when a fall occurs, you don’t want to have glass involved. People with dementia also drop items, or even decide to sit on things that weren’t meant to be used as a seat, and that could lead to serious injuries.
Install a kill switch on the stove and oven, or remove the knobs so they can’t be turned on. People with dementia will try to live their lives as they always have, and that includes using the kitchen. They don’t remember they are so forgetful, so the kitchen becomes a hazard for fires. Also, consider “child-proofing” the kitchen drawers/cupboards containing knives and hazardous chemicals. It can be much like having a very tall three-year-old child living with you. You must think ahead to what items could be dangerous for them, and anything that would be dangerous to a child, will also be a danger to any person with any type of dementia.
You may need to install a lock on the medicine cabinet to prevent this loved one from using medications or lotions inappropriately. I know of elders who drink mouthwash, or shake medicine tablets on their food like candy sprinkles. You just have no idea what may be going through their damaged brains, so remove the possibility of something like this happening by locking these items away.
There are many things you can do to make your home safer for your loved one with dementia, and these are just a few of the most important things to consider. I discuss many more aspects of safety in the home throughout my book entitled “Love, Laughter, & Mayhem – Caregiver Survival Manual For Living With A Person With Dementia.” Your loved one with dementia can safely live in your home with you if you’re prepared for those changes in their thinking and their ability to function. I hope you will be proactive with your changes and make them before an accident occurs.
Cindy Keith, RN, BS, CDP