Aging in place is the “conscious” decision to maintain independence as long as possible in your home as
safely as possible. But what happens if a loved one has the signs of dementia or a specific diagnosis
such Alzheimer’s Disease. How long will they be able to stay safe in the home? Will they be able to stay
at home while I work or while I run to the grocery store? What happens when they no longer remember
how to operate the microwave? Many families ask these questions.
While the topic of elderly safety can be very complex, families that know a loved one is showing signs of
dementia such as forgetfulness or loss of ability to perform everyday tasks, should start evaluating the
home and begin the planning process to keep their loved one safe. There are many home safety
checklists designed for keeping someone safe which is absolutely necessary but in this article I
wanted to remind viewers about some other key considerations for aging in place for someone with
dementia specifically Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Become educated about dementia and Alzheimer’s so you know what to expect and can be ready to make necessary changes when the time comes. Each person’s experiences with
dementia and memory loss will be different and therefore the timeline to make changes in the
home will vary greatly from person to person. For example, there are documented stages for
Alzheimer’s disease but one person could be in Stage I for years when another may decline to
Stage III quickly. Becoming educated and knowing the stages is a very important first step in
safety and planning.
2. Match what is happening with the person’s brain and body to the tasks he or she can or
can’t perform physically or mentally. Dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses many
diseases that affect thinking, behavior, and ability to perform daily tasks that once came easily.
Aging with dementia affects functions differently and these areas need to be evaluated frequently
so that safety measures can be put in place timely. Someone with Alzheimers in particular may
have additional safety measures that need to be completed than someone who is simply aging
physically or has generally short term memory loss.
- Physical ability – Most elderly lose strength, balance and coordination as they age and
improving these with exercise will help any senior get out of a chair or prevent a fall.
However, someone with dementia may be strong enough to walk about freely, but their
brain won’t connect when you ask them to safely get out of a chair to stand up or sit down.
Or, maybe the purpose of their exercise program is to strengthen to prevent a fall, but it
may also have the goal to help tire one so he or she may sleep better at night. This daily
exercise plan “safely” prevents him or her from rummaging through cabinets or
unsupervised tasks while you are asleep.
- Loss of senses- Many elderly lose vision or have depth perception issues and lose the
ability to navigate a room or dark hallway. Some elderly lose hearing and can’t participate
in conversations or may hear a fire truck siren going down the street. They can effectively
utilize hearing aids to assist them. Persons with dementia specifically Alzheimer’s may
have these issues but they are compounded with other sensory and judgment issues. For
example, a siren heard may cause agitation or fear. In later stages of Alzheimers the
ability to discern hot and cold temperatures out of a faucet or the ability to discern too
much salt from the salt shaker are sensory impairments that also utilize judgment. While
nightlights are a must to keep all elderly safe from falling while getting to the bathroom,
turning the hot water off to keep someone with late stage Alzheimers from burning
themselves once they get to the bathroom is another safety measure all together.
- Memory and judgment- Someone with dementia often has short term memory issues like
forgetfulness but also may lose the ability to problem solve and perform tasks they once
could. In terms of safety, does the person remember how to operate a car, a leaf blower,
or a toaster? Did they use to cook but might not remember to turn off the stove or faucet?
Memory and judgment needs to be evaluated frequently and safety measures put in place
without abruptly taking away tasks that a person can do safely with assistance or
observation. Maybe the chainsaw or drill needs to be locked up but a person can still
operate the leaf blower and find enjoyment in lawn maintenance with observation or assistance.
Caregivers must take all the necessary steps of keeping the elderly safe using a
specialized checklist throughout the home, but when caring for someone with particular types of
dementia such as Alzheimer’s other safety precautions and measures will need to be added that
match current brain function with behavior, physical ability, and judgment.
3. Trial and error keep the stress down. When someone loses memory, what works for
one may not work for another. People with dementia can live in their home safely with proper
safety precautions that are evaluated frequently. Generally, a person does not lose memory all of
a sudden as just like aging physically, it is a gradual process. Evaluating, asking permission, and
then trying something different allows you to more easily make changes. An example might be, if
someone has made it a habit to use a grab bar to exit the shower that person may continue to
perform that task for a year(s). But if that person’s short term memory and problem solving is
greatly affected, eventually he or she may forget to use the assistive device and could potentially
fall. Evaluating the bathing task is crucial to making the change to a shower chair, discussing why
the change may need to occur, and then assisting them with bathing to keep them safe.
4. Someone with dementia deserves to have dignity and respect as they lose memory
and as their behaviors change. Going from A to Z with safety measures in one weekend may
upset a person with dementia. Yes, removing tripping hazards and providing ample lighting for
low vision can be done in a weekend. But as safety measures are put in place related to memory,
sometimes it is best to go a little slower when making changes.
For example, if your mother has been doing laundry or cooking meals their entire life and all of
sudden the caregiver runs around and does the entire task to completion and not allow the
person to participate, they may feel anger or lose self-esteem and become depressed. While as a
caregiver, you are very worried about their safety because the person can’t operate the washer or
stove or they may forget to turn it off and burn the house down. Now it is time to take this task in
stages and break it down. You can turn the power back on to the electrical appliance each time,
observe or assist the person in the completion of the task or break it down further and have them
finish other steps. Maybe they can still easily fold laundry, stir a cake, or put dishes away. Maybe
they just need some cues or reminders to finish.
Persons with dementia are human beings and they still want to have a sense of responsibility and
accomplishment. Just because they can’t remember to do a task does not mean they can’t do the
task safely. Giving a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s dignity and respect goes a long way in
preventing unwanted behaviors when they lose the ability to communicate later. Keeping an
elderly loved one safe is a priority but it must be coupled with knowledge of their individualized
progression of memory loss so that both the caregiver and the loved one can make it successfully
through the journey of aging safely with dementia.
Aging in Place Safely with Dementia or Alzheimer’s
By Katie DeSocio
Owner of Senior Transitions, where we help seniors age in place safely
205-568-0543 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Find us on Facebook @ageinplacesafely or on Next Door, Senior Transitions LLC
Check out our informative PDF here.
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