By Sylvana Rinehart, Certified Senior Advisor at Concierge Care Advisors
January 2019 is “National Bath Safety Month.” There are many other nationally recognized topics for January; for example, blood donor month, braille literacy month, hobby month and oatmeal month. I won’t elaborate on the inordinate national days or months’ topics, but I do think that it is worth looking into why we have a month dedicated to safety in what is probably the most dangerous room in our homes, the bathroom. Bathrooms have become aesthetically pleasing in modern homes, but not necessarily any safer due to unforgiving and slippery surfaces. In older homes, due to their small size and large tubs, the space is not conducive to increase safety measures. Essentially, both new and older homes are risky for the senior population. There are three areas of concerns in most bathrooms to be addressed in this article: Bath/shower, toilet; keeping medications, shampoos and other potentially hazardous materials locked up when there is a person with cognitive loss living in the home.
As trained Senior Living Advisor, we may be asked by healthcare professionals to go into a senior’s home and perform a thorough safety check. Bathroom inspection is a big part of the assessment and more often than not we are told that there had been one or more falls in that room before the visit with little or no safety measures subsequently taken. According to the National Institute of Aging (NIA) more than one in three people over 65 fall each year, and 80 percent of those falls are in the bathroom. Most of the injuries occur getting out of the shower or bath tub. Injuries in or near the bathtub or shower account for more than two-thirds of emergency room visits.According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.6 million older adults seek emergency care each year for fall-related injuries, fractures or head trauma.
I recall a dear elderly friend who most of her life took a warm bath before going to bed. I called her regularly in the evening to check in with her and she always ended by saying: “I’m going to take a warm bath, brush my teeth, and then have a good night sleep!” She was a tiny, agile 88 years old lady. However, one evening she could no longer get out of the tub. For some reason, her muscles tightened up and she kept losing her balance and falling back into the slippery tub. She became discouraged and stopped trying to get out. She couldn’t figure out how to call for help. Thankfully, she was found several hours later with no major injuries despite being cold and scared. Subsequently, her tub was retrofitted with grab bars and anti-slip strips, plus increased supervision at bed time. She didn’t like the loss of independence during her life-long ritual before bed, but the alternative was not a good one either.
There are many new senior friendly walk-in shower stalls with grab bars, ultra-low step up, and foldable shower seats to allow for a wheel chair when necessary. Flexible shower wands are a must. There are some step-in tubs where the person sits, the door is locked in place and the tub fills with hot water. Jets swirl the water around massaging the occupant for those who like a Jacuzzi bath.
According to the NIA, the other area where most falls occur is around the toilet seat. Older homes still have the lower toilet seats making it harder for seniors to get on or off the seat. Grab bars on both sides of the toilet seat are extremely helpful. Raising the bowl a few inches from the regular 15 inches to 17 or 19 inches makes it a more comfortable height for most people and is easier on the knees. Besides the grab bars, a non-slip mat in front of the seat and keeping the toilet paper roll close at hand is recommended.
The last, but not least safety tip for bathrooms is keeping all household cleaners, medications, and other noxious products under lock when there is a member of the family with cognitive deficits. Recently, a friend was ready to take her sister out for dinner. Not focusing on what her sister was doing in the bathroom, when they were ready to leave, she surfaced triumphantly covered with tooth paste in her hair, face and clothes! Her sister never thought of locking hair sprays, tooth paste, mouth wash and anything that is labeled “hazardous if swallowed.”
The above covered structural reasons for falls or hazards in the bathrooms. But there are other medical reasons that may contribute to falls. For example, poor eyesight and reflexes, balance issues posed by diabetes, heart disease, thyroid conditions and various medications. Dehydration plays a major role in sudden increase in frailness and confusion which can lead to a fall.
One of the most effective ways to preserve balance is to stay active with an exercise regimen. Ask your doctor about exercises designed to improve balance, stability and overall mobility, such as moderate yoga or tai chi on a regular basis. Taking a fall prevention class at the local hospital or Senior Center can be helpful while equipping homes with necessary safety precautions can reduce senior falls, keep them out of the emergency room, and possibly extend their quality of life.
Lastly, did you know that today, January 8th, is bubble bath day? Make sure your bathroom is safe while you enjoy a moment of self-care!