Not long ago, I was contacted by a young woman (OK, she was 47, but that’s young to me!) who was terrified that her 93-year-old aunt was going to set her own house on fire. This aunt had lived alone for 15 years since her husband passed away, and she was still mentally sharp. Her niece asked me to come in and investigate how her home could be made safer.
I knew two things: the niece meant well, and you can’t just barge into someone’s home domain and start making changes. Even if these changes have to be made, it’s imperative to get the person’s permission. After speaking with the aunt, I realized that she had no idea why any changes needed to be made. She was especially stubborn when it came to her prized collection of lamps, each of which had a unique story that was very important to her. So, I brought her one of her lamps and showed her the frayed wires and dirty connections, and I explained the real world safety hazards. Once she realized that we only wanted to make her safer, she agreed to let me do my thing.
We brought in an electrician so he could repair and upgrade the overall situation. In less than four days, he increased the conductivity of her electrical supply, added a few outlets and fixed all her lamps. Since the aunt wanted to live at home as long as possible, the electrician also installed a stronger power supply that could support an electrically operated chair for her stairway in case she ever needed one.
Many older people become victims of accidents in their own homes, and most of these accidents can be avoided with a few commonsense steps.
It’s also important that your parent or older loved one be prepared for emergencies. At a minimum, I work from a checklist that includes a backup generator, extra oxygen if needed, sanitary supplies, medications, signed prescriptions from the doctor, food, water, flashlights, batteries, battery-operated radio, handheld can opener, small camping blanket and plastic raincoat or poncho. I also suggest keeping a backpack for each member of the household and having it ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Back to the niece and her aunt: Once we communicated what the goal was—to make her home a safer environment—the conflict and strain between them melted away. The aunt was no longer afraid that her niece was going to remove prized possessions and replace them with modern things she might dislike. After the work was completed, the aunt whispered in my ear, “I lived in dread that I was going to set the house on fire, but I was afraid to tell my niece since she might put me in a nursing home.”
The aunt lived happily in her safer home environment until she passed away six years later. And all the while, her niece felt good since she had kept her promise to her uncle that she would never place her aunt in a nursing home.
Dr. Marion Somers is a consultant, lecturer and experienced geriatric care manager. Her new Web site, www.doctormarion.com, provides direct support for anyone involved with caring for an aging parent or loved one. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Marion currently lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in January-February 2007 Issue