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A bit of prevention can help prevent a serious fall

The safest way to judge the future is to find out as much as possible about what is going on in the present.

If you're living independently in your own home, or you're an adult child of aging parents, look around you. Is your house safe to move around in? Are your older parents an accident waiting to happen?

As caregivers or an older person living independently we can't look into a crystal ball to see what lies ahead or whether a crisis will happen. But we can be better prepared and try to avoid an accident or fall before it happens.

I know my own mother was moving along through the years, functioning reasonably well and presenting few, if any, problems to us as her adult children. And, of course, we accepted the status quo and gave little thought to how temporary it could be. Then one day a crisis occurred with little warning. My mother stumbled and fell in her own home and fractured her pelvic bone. Things changed considerably. It marked the beginning of caregiving.

This same type of thing has happened to Debbie and John Fraser of New Port Richey. John's mother, Evelyn, was a self-sufficient 72-year-old. She was the official babysitter for her grandchildren and was ready to help out whenever one of her children needed her. She fell in her home and fractured her hip. Suddenly, the children realized she needed their help for the first time.

Falls cannot be taken lightly! Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries to persons 65 and older. And most falls occur during the daylight hours in or around the home.

In earlier times I'm sure most of us have made our homes baby proof to one degree or the other. But now, no matter what age we are, let's look around us.

Older people are prone to dangerous falls because of a variety of health problems. As we age our eyes age also and our visual perception diminishes. It also takes more time to adjust to changes in light intensity. This affected my mother very much plus her peripheral vision declined. People 65 or older usually require two to three times more light than people who are younger. So it's extremely important that you have good lighting in and around your home.

Other health problems could be painful arthritis, disorientation or a dizziness problem that could be caused by high/low blood sugar, medication or poor circulation. These things _ together with fragile bones due to bone thinning, impaired joints and chronic ailments _ make for vulnerability. Some people experience change in their ability to restore balance after a stumble. All of these things put you at risk for a fall or an accident.

Naturally our surroundings are something with which we are familiar and secure. But the security that some possessions bring may not be as friendly as you think. John's mother had a beautiful throw rug that had remained her favorite for years. "I got my foot caught and down I went _ it did its job _ it's a throw rug all right. It just took one wrinkle at the wrong time to change my life." Our homes _ where we feel the safest and most secure _ can become so cluttered with keepsakes or just things left out on the floor that they can become danger zones.

The aging process is always with us but we begin to look at it differently around 50-55. Learning about changes in ourselves and how to adapt, compensate and prepare for later years is essential. So, critically examine how to make things work easily for yourself in the future and your aging parents or relatives now. Consider:

Lighting _ Improve and evenly distribute lighting in the rooms and make sure the light is strong but soft to reduce glare. Have nightlights in bathrooms, bedrooms and halls.

Room objects _ Electrical cords and small pieces of furniture placed so they can't be tripped over, clutter picked up and put into place. Clean up spills immediately.

Appliances _ Check for good working order, have fire extinguishers hanging in the kitchen. All should know how to use it. Smoke detectors should be in every room.

Water heater _ Check for a non-scalding temperature: 120 degrees or lower.

Flooring _ Secure carpet edges with tape, take up lightweight scatter rugs. Buy the non-slip, non-trip type. Fix bumpy carpeting. Attach reflective tape on steps.

Bathtub handrails, non-slip mat in the bathtub, handrails next to toilet, raised toilet seat for easier access.

Also, personally _ upon rising from bed _ sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes. Give your circulation a chance to circulate. Get your bearings. When standing up from the sitting position just stand for a moment _ especially if you're taking medication that can cause dizziness. Wear good supportive shoes to prevent loss of balance. Telephones, doorbells and alarms should be heard; have your hearing checked and get regular medical checkups.

As caregivers keeping the house safe for you and your spouse, and helping to monitor your parents' home, will help your family and your parents avoid the critical hardship that a fall or accident can cause.

Remember: Caregivers make the present moment count!

Ethel Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters, Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care.