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Safety at home for people with dementia

People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can live at home safely as long as precautions are taken. Needed precautions will change as problems progress for each individual. When it comes to safety for someone with an impaired memory, the first thing that often comes to mind is the hazard of leaving a pot on the stove and starting a fire. Later in the illness, people with dementia can do unpredictable things like hide objects under burners, or try to cook with plastic containers. I’ll highlight three key safety concerns and what to do about them. I list additional resources at the end.

1. Fire –

  • To keep someone from cooking who shouldn’t, you can remove knobs from stovetops, or install switches so that the appliances can be completely turned off. Place switches inside cabinets or somewhere you’re sure the person with dementia can’t or won’t access them. Don’t forget the microwave; it can catch fire too.
  • For someone who still cooks, but there is a worry about walking away, you can install timers that will signal stoves and other appliances to turn off after a set period of time, or after a motion sensor detects that a person is no longer standing in front of the cooking area.
  • Take special care. You’d be surprised at how easy it can be for things to go wrong even when you think you have covered the bases. When it was no longer safe for my parents to be cooking in their apartment, I initially thought that throwing the circuit breaker to the oven and stove would take care of it. On my next visit though, my mother was heating soup. She had thrown the circuit breaker back. People with early dementia remember well-engrained lessons, such as, if an appliance doesn’t work, first check the circuit breaker. So I called the maintenance department for their building, explained the situation and asked them to unplug my parents’ appliances. They did so, but a few days later I noticed the clock on the oven was on. My mother had called maintenance, complained that her stove and oven weren’t working and asked them to fix them. Again, they did so. Finally I called the social worker for my parents’ Continuing Care Community, and she shored up all lines of communication; we unplugged the stove and oven for good.
  • Obviously keep matches out of the home or in a secured drawer or cabinet. Fortunately fewer people smoke these days, but people with a memory problem should do so only under supervision. Smoke detectors and fire extinguishers should all be checked and in working order.

2. Hazardous materials –

  • Remove or lock away electrical appliances such as hairdryers and curling irons that might accidentally be dropped or even put into water, as a person’s dementia becomes severe and the person forgets how to use objects.
  • Secure other objects that might be hazardous if misused, such as tools or knives, as well as insecticides, solvents or cleaning supplies..
  • Don’t forget to keep medicine bottles in a safe place, especially for people who may be used to taking their own pills. They may forget they had already taken a dose or that someone else administers them now and take too much if bottles are out.

3. Falls – Along with memory loss, people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often have visual-spatial problems. This affects their perception and their ability to navigate and move around safely.

  • It’s especially important for people with dementia to have their home free of tripping hazards like loose rugs, low furniture, and electrical cords,. Try to de-clutter.
  • Keep the home well-lit, with night lights in hallways. Motion detectors can bewired to turn bathroom and hall lights on at night.
  • Take extra care with stairs and consider blocking them off completely when confusion, balance, and physical issues compound to make them extremely hazardous.

Resources:

How to Care for Aging Parents by Virginia Morris (2014), the third edition of this excellent book on medical, financial, housing, and emotional issues is thorough and easy to read.

http://www.thiscaringhome.org/ Home Safety A project of Weill Cornell Medical College, with information pulled together from a wide variety of professionals. Contains lots of specifics.

The 36-Hour Day by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins, now in it 5th edition (2011) is a classic on dealing with many issues in caring for a loved one with dementia, including home safety.

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