Ed Hrivnak, the Assistant Chief of Prevention and Education with Central Pierce Fire and Rescue spoke about falls prevention at a recent meeting I attended. This isn’t a new topic if you are a senior but Ed brought with him the actual situations that cause people to have to call the fire department out to their homes. Hrivnak sent a checklist and I’ve included it in our resources with a link at the bottom of this article. I thought it might help to go through some of the things the fire department sees when they first show up at a home because even as the fire department personnel are racing to the scene, they notice other things that create potential situations for them.
The Address: Most seniors don’t live in brand new homes. If you’ve been in your home for a while your home address probably isn’t as clear as it out to be. I thought about this recently because at work our address is actually painted over in the same color paint as the building. Of course it is clearer and more distinct on our main entrance but if you are making a quick address check, the first door you see isn’t clearly marked. Many people have the same problem. They might have had the numbers clearly painted and visible when they first moved in but they’ve since been painted over or plants have grown up around the numbers or other things obscure the address. It’s best for the fire department if your address is visible on the building and then again at street level and if it is visible even at night.
Hrivnak said one problem they have is that with more and more people choosing not to have land lines, 911 operators can’t pinpoint your exact address. The 911 operator has to depend upon the caller being able to provide the location or help is delayed. If you rely exclusively on your cell phone and you can talk, many people get confused when they are in an emergency situation. Hrivnak said even as a fire department employee when his daughter was having an allergic reaction he struggled to remember his address. One solution is to write your phone number and address on the back of your phone so it’s always available. This can be important especially if the home owner isn’t the one making the call because the homeowner is the one that needs help. A caregiver or friend will still need to be able to provide your location to the responders.
The Driveway: Most homes nowadays have two car driveways. Yet, long after the second car is gone many people continue to park to one side or the other of the driveway. Hrivnak says one of the things he often sees is the fallen person by the side of the car. What happens is that as the individual is getting out of the car or fetching groceries or whatever that causes them to be to the side of the car, their foot hits the side of the pavement between the pavement and the grass. The uneven footing causes them to stumble and fall. An open car door doesn’t provide them with the leverage they need to pull themselves up and they become stuck. A friend of mine recently did something of the same sort when she missed her footing while maneuvering a trash can out to the curb. She managed to drag herself quite painfully back to where she could get help in getting up. Hrivnak recommends parking in the middle of the driveway so your footing is more even.
A Ramp: If you need a cane, a wheelchair or a walker, you ought to have a ramp. The fire department would like you to have a ramp if you have stairs because if they have to haul you out of your house on a gurney they’re going to need to be able to move you in a way that provides them a degree of safety as well.
Carpeting: Some senior advocates advise against any kind of carpeting. Hrivnak recommends that if you have carpeting it should be in good repair both for you and for them. If you have troubles pushing a walker across the floor, emergency personnel will have problems pushing a gurney across the floor. One of the biggest problems is when people have spots where the linoleum and carpeting meet. With age, those edges pull away from each other and create potential tripping hazards. Area rugs should have non-slip backing and the area rug people put in front of their sink should be especially paid attention to.
Pets: Small pets especially often cause tripping problems. For you they may cause problems from loose food around their food dishes or stray toys in a pathway. Keep food areas cleaned on a daily basis. In my own household, I feed my cats both dry and canned food in separate dishes and for some reason the canned food dishes migrate around their feeding area. I rarely step on those little dishes but my visitors often do. So I guess I should head off a potential problem by changing my feeding strategy.
It’s not just feeding areas and toys though. When the fire department comes in to help lift someone back up, their feet often tangle with smaller dogs who are over excited about strangers around their beloved person. If there is a second person in the household, safely moving a pet out of the picture will help the emergency personnel concentrate on the individual needing help rather than worrying about stepping on someone’s paws or tail.
The Kitchen: The kitchen is the primary area for falls. The area rug in front of the sink, the pet dishes, potential spills and just the fact that it is generally a high traffic area in a high make it dangerous. If you take medications, your list of the medications you take should be placed on the fridge. Other information that the fire department might need includes emergency contact information. (One thing that came up I in the meeting is that your emergency contact should also have a list of your medications since of course not accidents happen in the home.)
The Phone: I’ve already addressed the cell phone issue but what if you have a landline? One thing people often do is have a long cord on their land lines to make it possible for them to move more easily around the house while still talking. If you are one of those people, consider getting a wireless phone. Then you can wander to your heart’s content without finding yourself tripping over a cord.
Oxygen Tubing: Some people need oxygen but aren’t hooked up all the time to it or they have long tubing to allow them to maneuver around in the house. Have a set place for that tubing to be so you don’t inadvertently trip on it.
Bathroom: Hrivnak said that everyone over 50 should have grab bars installed. The problem he’s found with grab bars though is that they are often placed in the wrong place. If the one placed by the toilet causes you to overextend it’s just an accident waiting to happen. Here again, rugs need to have non-slip bottoms and the potential for falls due to water spills increases in this room. Keep area clean and free of clutter.
Bedroom: Do you get up in the middle of the night to make trips to the bathroom? Your blood pressure is at its lowest while you are laying down. Sitting up or standing can raise it quickly. After he took a fall from tripping on a child’s toy he created a rule for himself. He sits up, counts one potato, two potato, three. While he’s counting his eyes sweep the floor for possible tripping hazards. He then stands and does the counting thing again before moving. That brief waiting period allows his blood pressure to level off before he moves so he’s less likely to struggle with inertia.
Pharmacy: Take a list of medications to your doctor or pharmacist and have them perform a medication review. Many seniors are over medicated. Even those who aren’t might experience dizziness or lightheadedness as a side effect of their medications and should have them looked over for possible fall issues.