Making Home a Safe Haven

By Stephanie Reagan, PT, DPT, Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads Rehab Services

Non-slip bathroom mats are one of the many “safety checks” on Stephanie Reagan’s home safety assessment.

We can all imagine the iconic scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy clicks her ruby red slippers three times and quietly mutters those famous words… “there’s no place like home… there’s no place like home…” And that is certainly true! Our home is a place of familiarity, comfort and calm—an escape from the hustle and bustle outside our door. As we age, we have to reassess whether our safe haven of home is indeed safe. 

Each day, I am invited into the homes of Goodwin House residents. As the contracted therapy provider for Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads and Goodwin House Alexandria, I help address deficits in functional mobility, balance, strength and/or complaints of pain. My goal is to help each resident maximize their independence and improve their quality of life. Part of reaching that goal requires that I determine if their home is both comfortable and safe for them.

None of us is a soothsayer. We can’t predict the future. But we can reasonably assume that our strength and stamina will naturally decline as we get older. It is important to assess your home with this assumption in mind. For instance, a long hallway connecting your bedroom to the bathroom may not pose a problem for you now; however, that seemingly short distance may challenge your stamina after a certain age. While you currently have the strength to open cabinets and appliances in your kitchen, you may find them to be difficult to open down the road.

Safe Living Factors at Home and in Senior Living Communities

If you plan to “age-in-place,” meaning you hope to remain in your current home for as long as possible, there are factors to consider. The Goodwin House at Home program offers a home assessment to their members to ensure their home provides optimal conditions for active, safe and meaningful living, both now and into the future. Whether assessing a private home or an apartment within a retirement community, here are some of the questions to explore:

  • Is there an entrance that doesn’t require any stairs?
  • Can you access a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen without taking stairs?
  • Is the home entrance easy to unlock, lock, open and close?
  • Do you have access to a walk-in shower?
  • Do all area rugs have non-slip strips to prevent slipping or tripping?
  • Are the hallways and staircases well lit?
  • Are kitchen cabinets and shelves easy to each?
  • If there are stairs, are there secure handrails on both sides?
  • Are all electrical cords safely located to prevent tripping?
  • Are their nonslip mats in the bathtub/shower?

 Many of these scenarios can be addressed without major renovations. Some might require you to modify your home slightly. However, if you anticipant making more extensive changes to your home, consider hiring a builder who is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS). These builders are keenly aware of the important construction nuances necessary to make a home safe, attractive and comfortable for the long-term.

Most senior living communities consider these elements when designing and constructing their apartment homes. The physical features of the apartment are not the only factors to think about if you’re moving to a community. For example, be sure that the community offers continuing care options so that additional assistance, whether long-term or temporary, is available when you need it. Also, look for communities that offer amenities and activities that are of interest to you. This will keep you active and engaged, which leads to better physical, mental and emotional health.

Regardless of whether your plan is to age in place or move to a senior living community, be aware of everyday falling hazards in addition to these main features of your home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults. The most dangerous threats in a home include throw rugs, loose carpet, clutter on the floor, chairs with wheels, high beds, hard to reach cabinets, slippery tubs/showers, stairs, extension cords and unstable or nonexistent handrails. Look around your home and address any of these potential hazards. Also, remember not to use a towel rack as a grab bar! A typical towel rack is not able to withhold body weight.

For extra safety in the home, make sure each room in your home has a flashlight, telephone, sufficient lighting and a smoke detector. You also might consider a service such as a Life Alert system, so you have peace of mind that help is on the way if you are injured while home alone.

It is a privilege for me to be invited in to the homes of so many wonderful people each week. Looking around at photos, mementos and memories shared in their personal space, I celebrate their opportunity to thrive in a safe, comfortable and familiar environment. I might lack a pair of red slippers, but I think Dorothy was right—there really is no place like home!

Stephanie Reagan, PT, DPT, graduated with her doctorate in Physical Therapy from Duquesne in 2012. She started her career as a travel therapist and eventually joined Flagship Rehabilitation (the on-site rehab firm for GHI’s two Life Plan Communities). Stephanie came to Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads in 2014, and in 2015 she became part of the Rehab management team where she is responsible for supervising the department in addressing the various therapy needs of Goodwin House residents and members.