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Safety is not a checklist, it's a way of life

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

Safety is best approached as a way of life, rather than a checklist of things needing to be done. Even if you practice safety in eldercare, is safety a habit in your life, or not? If safety is seamlessly integrated in your life, your elder's, and the safety of anyone else in your household, give yourself a pat on the back.

There is a new cable show I enjoy watching on the A&E cable channel called "Hoarders: Buried Alive." Mom also watches the show intently, with no visible or residual anxiety.

Though hoarding can make its debut in the lives of elders, the condition known as hoarding is not unique to elders. Many individuals, regardless of age, hoard things and may also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders.

I am thankful and blessed that my 85-year old Mom only stashes napkins and paper towels. Lord knows we all need those in the middle of the night for something-or-the-other that may develop, if only in our elders' way of seeing the world.

Mom keeps her stash of napkins and neatly folded paper towels in her pocketbook and in her bedside night table. No harm, no foul, and I do occasionally know where to find a napkin or paper towel in a pinch when we have a water or soft drink spill. Good deal for both of us, even if the napkins sometimes conceal spoons. That's another elder blog or story. Thus far, I have no heartburn with Mom's elder eccentricity, and no concerns about napkins and paper towels being the death of us all.

Beware Safety Issues in Hoarding

On "Hoarders: Buried Alive" individuals' homes are cluttered sometimes floor-to-ceiling with possessions. Just as often the clutter fills entire hallways and stairs in the person's home. The homeowner-hoarder and his or her visitors are forced literally to climb over all manner of objects to make their way through the home.

When I see all of the items covering just about every surface in the individual's home, several things come to mind.

  • First and foremost, safety is an issue in such homes, be it potential slips, trips, falls, tumbles or skin abrasions. Fire hazards, including in kitchens where electricity, gas and water need to be used, are obvious.
  • Molds may be a hidden problem and ticking time bomb.
  • Under certain conditions, pets pose a public health and safety risk in homes, more so when cages are not cleaned and insects may abound.
  • Air quality in the home has to be an issue.
  • Unsanitary pet cages, flies and other insects, a home-owner's un-tossed food containers and unwashed dishes pose added health risks to the homeowner and others who may frequent or visit the hoarder's home.
  • Where there are abundant decaying food sources and places to hide, critters are never far behind. Infestations of anything are annoying and up the ante in health complications for someone who is chronically ill.
  • Accumulated dust and grime are known enemies of respiratory health and chronic respiratory conditions.

That is my short list of safety concerns that come to mind when I view "Hoarders." Obsessive hoarding requires medical, organizing and psychological intervention if the hoarder stands a chance at re-emerging from the dysfunction of clutter. While compulsive hoarding to the point of being buried alive is an extreme, there are valuable safety and life lessons to be gleaned from such circumstances.

Safety Need Not be a Monumental Task

Have you ever considered doing a safety walk-through of your home? I do a maintenance walk-through of my home a couple times annually. I also do a safety scan of my home at least weekly.

Look for frayed electrical cords, rugs and carpeting that do not rest firmly on the floor. Remember the childhood refrain, "Everything in its place and a place for everything?" If something is out of place on the floor, it needs to be removed, not ignored by me.

Sometimes I have a notepad in hand when I do my in-home walk throughs. Other times, I simply keep mental track of what all needs to be done. Usually, at day's end, I start (or update) a 3x5 index card of any categories requiring my short, mid and long-term attention. As a carer, I am always alert to uneven floor and pavement surfaces, including carpeting, entrances and exits, wheelchair ramps, and more.

Continuous Environmental Scanning

As Mom advances in age and her eyesight is no longer 20/20, uneven surfaces contribute to unstable and non-confident footing and gait. I choose to be Mom's added eyes and ears. It doesn't hurt, and it keeps me continuously aware of our surroundings.

Pending routine maintenance and home repairs, I consider it my responsibility to be the voice in the wilderness that alerts Mom to where the uneven surfaces may be. "Watch your footing here, Mom," I say, no matter how many times I feel I need to say it.

My safety is not limited to being aware and keeping up with home repairs and my maintenance list. My safety awareness includes actively communicating and monitoring in-home traffic and changes, especially Mom's movements as she is up doing her own thing, to ensure that I am helping to increase her awareness of potential safety issues.

Mom loves walking without her cane, but she needs a cane. I keep a cane in my car, a cane in the living and dining rooms and one in my garage. Without skipping a beat or saying a word, I simply grab one of the handy canes and hand it to Mom. Until she is near to one of her stylish canes, I simply intertwine our arms and help her along.

No red flags and construction workers necessary; just a whole lot of common sense, focus and continuous environmental scanning. Having watched "Hoarders" alone and with my Mom, I am also quick to toss things Mom may leave lying around. I have never been a pack-rat. I don't intend to start now, either. "Hoarders" is an informative show for elders and their caregivers who may be inclined to watch.

Safety and awareness have long been part of my lifestyle. It certainly helps that my former life includes Manager of Workers' Compensation and Risk Management. I've investigated, reported and directed remedial steps in all manner of workplace accidents and incidents. Little things, unattended, can lead to big safety headaches.

I once heard some airline official say that airline crashes and accidents are invariably a series of incidents that were ignored along the way. The same holds true for all accidents, including those that happen in the home. Ignoring any safety hazard, whether in-home, a nursing home, adult day care program, or hospital is likely to guarantee an eldercare accident which might have been entirely avoidable had a carer taken timely action.

You and your elders be safe, now. Deal?