HELP LINE: Make the home a safe place for Alzheimer’s patients

SOME OF US are caregivers — or we’re going to be.

Some of us recognize that word. Some of us don’t.

So I’ll provide Mark’s standard definition of a caregiver: A caregiver is somebody who is taking care of somebody who needs to be taken care of, whether they like it or not.

True, we might have started out being a wife, a husband, a daughter, a son, a granddaughter or an ex-spouse, etc., but, somewhere along the way, we became caregivers.

That’s just how it goes.

One of the first things that most of us do, when we’re being caregivers, is try to master the day-to-day stuff: manage the medications, figure out the “toileting thing,” do whatever else the doctor(s) said to do, deal with food/nutrition, bathing, mobility.

Then, we often get distracted by little things such as paying bills, figuring out how to get our person to medical appointments, sleeping, etc.

As we get further and further into it, the actual environment (house, apartment, room, basement, mobile home, whatever) gets further and further from the top of the list: We can live with a bit of clutter — a pile here, a pile there — and a degree of disorganization, as long as we’re able to get to what we need to get to, and use what we need to use, in order to do what we need to do: provide that care.

That is just how it goes.

But if we’re caring for a person with Alzheimer’s, or any kind of dementia (but we’ll just say “Alzheimer’s”), and that person is mobile (which is often the case), the environment suddenly becomes a very big deal, because what was once a friendly and perfectly functional home can become a minefield, filled with threats that we never saw coming.

Because I do whatever it is that I do, I get a lot of lists that somebody somewhere thought would be helpful to somebody somewhere who was enmeshed in being a caregiver.

Often they excel in overstating the obvious.

It occurs to me, however, that “obvious” is a relative term, depending on who and where you are, and how long you have been doing this caregiving thing.

Recently, I came across a list of suggestions, from the U.S. National Institute on Aging, on how to help keep a home as safe as possible for a person with Alzheimer’s, that seems pretty sane, so here it is:

• Clearly post emergency numbers and your home address near any telephone (If you live via cellphone, I’d add: put that info, in big black letters, somewhere obvious, such as a bathroom mirror or the inside of a front door. You’d be surprised how easy it is to completely space out, in an emergency);

• Install secure locks on all outside doors and windows;

• Install alarms that notify you when a door or window is opened;

• Hide a spare key (or code) outside, in case your person locks you out;

• Avoid extension cords (and those pesky piles) if at all possible. One of you could fall pretty easily;

• Cover unused electrical outlets with “childproof” inserts (I put that in quotes because it’s not meant to be disrespectful — it’s just what those things are called);

• Place red tape around floor vents, radiators and other heating devices to deter your person from approaching them. (Let’s face it: We cancelled the Good Housekeeping photographers a long time ago. This is about what works.);

• Check all rooms for adequate lighting. (This isn’t just about tripping — it can also be about a mind misinterpreting what its eyes are seeing and producing some very scary images);

• Stairways should have a handrail that extends beyond the first and last steps. If possible, the steps should be carpeted or have safety grip strips. You might consider putting a gate across the stairs “… if there’s a balance issue” — or some other good reason;

• Keep medications and alcohol locked and out of reach (and, out of sight);

• We already talked about clutter, right?

• Remove all weapons from the home or lock them up;

• Lock all power tools and machinery (I confess that I’d never thought of this one. Good idea);

• Remove any poisonous plants from the home (or that one. Wow).

That’s the list. Many of us could add many things to it, and I am hoping that many of us will because the smartest people I know are the people who are doing this every day.

So, just shoot me an email and I’ll try to share the wisdom.

I also know that caregiving is a full-time job, and there is just a physical limit to what any of us can actually accomplish in a puny, 24-hour day, so just look at this stuff, prioritize what applies to your situation and do the best you can.

None of us have ever “batted 1,000,” and none of us ever will, because this is all about approximation — doing the best we can.

If the whole caregiving thing is just rolling over you like a freight train (and that happens to the best of us), call any of the numbers at the end of this column and say “caregiver” or “caregiving,” or something like that, and decent people will do what they can to help.

You never know.

Here’s one last thing that wasn’t on that list — most of us learned it the hard way, and it’s the easiest thing to forget: Your person isn’t acting this way on purpose. They don’t mean to. If they could do better, they would.

Love doesn’t end.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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