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Helping Elderly Relatives Stay Independent

Updated on January 28, 2018
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Although not in the medical field, medical topics fascinate this author. Liz urges folks with any medical issues to see their doctors.

Aging Is Inevitable

We all age. Some manage to do so more gracefully than others, but still, aging is our common fate. Right now, the population of senior citizens is growing rapidly as the post World War II "baby boom" generation ages and swells the ranks of the elderly just as they did the school populations from 1946 or so until the mid 1960s.

It is at once ironic and sad that we end up in our senior years nearly as helpless as babes, with many of the same safety concerns and needing similar preventative measures installed. A comedian has said, "We leave the world the same way we came in: toothless and in diapers." That may be an extreme statement, but it is common enough to warrant attention.

Some of us have lost our parents, and some of us are dealing with our aging and increasingly infirm parents. Maybe instead it is siblings or other relatives needing assistance as they age. Maybe, it is even ourselves.

Aches, Pains, and Limited Mobility Often Come With Aging

As we age, daily tasks become more difficult
As we age, daily tasks become more difficult | Source

Staying Self-Sufficient; Staying Alive

Most people, the elderly included, want to be independent and remain in their own homes for as long as they possibly can. Self-sufficiency is important to our sense of self-worth as humans.

There are many, many devices available these days to help with that goal. Most of these items had not yet been invented in our grandparent's generation.

There are three primary areas of importance in keeping our dignity and feeling worthwhile, and those are:

  • bathing and toilet functions
  • dressing
  • preparing meals and eating

Any infirmity that causes a problem in any one of these areas definitely affects the senior at a level that can cause depression.

Throw in all of them, and they may lose the ability to remain living alone and in independent circumstances. People who must live in an assisted living residence or nursing home generally go downhill very quickly because they are depressed.

Having lost their independence, and their familiar homes, they often lose the will to live at all. So the more we, as family of our treasured elders can do to help them stay safe and happy in their homes, the better for all.

Help in the Bathroom

Statistically, disregarding a famous quote about statistics), more accidents happen in the bathroom than any other room in the home, regardless of age. So, it stands to reason that the bathroom is a good place to start "senior-proofing,"

Slip and fall accidents in the bathroom can be very serious, even deadly, due to the hard surfaces found everywhere. A fall is not cushioned by carpet or broken by soft furniture. Your body is going to encounter the hard edge of the tub, the sink, and ultimately the floor.

Preventing such falls is imperative for seniors, even more so than for children. That's not to say that children should not be protected--only that a fall is less damaging to them for their bones have not become fragile like the bones of the elderly; also, they are shorter and don't have as far to fall.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

— Benjamin Disraeli

The Toilet

One of the most difficult motions for senior citizens is moving into or out of a sitting position. Therefore, using the toilet unassisted can be a very challenging proposition, and needing an attendant to assist is a serious blow to one's dignity.

While the living area of the house can be outfitted with electric "rise-assist" chairs, the same is not true of the bathroom. Therefore, assorted types of grab rails, either built-in or portable are needed.

There are also available risers which fit to the toilet seat, so it is higher, and easier to sit upon.

Bathing Assistance

Getting in and out of the bathtub or shower is another very dangerous and often difficult task for seniors. Something solid to grab is vitally important.

Bathtubs can prove very challenging and dangerous, requiring the person to lower themselves virtually down to floor level for the bath, and hoist themselves up again when finished. Some who are still able to to this may yet need some assitance with balance on their way in and out of the tub.

For those who cannot lower themselves all the way, a portable bath seat is the solution. These are in effect, plastic chairs that are impervious to water. They can be placed in either the tub or shower, making it unnecessary to sit any lower than an ordinary chair.

Help Getting Dressed: Eliminating the Floor

Being able to get dressed by oneself is another important task that helps people to feel independent and worthwhile. Unfortunately, the older we get, the further away the floor, and hence our shoes, seem to be.

Since we cannot cancel gravity and float easily in space, the floor remains part of our reality. So the idea is to eliminate not the actual floor, but the need for bending over to reach things down there.

Fear not--help is at hand in this area as well. First, there are many different kinds of shoe racks and shoe-holders that keep shoes up off the floor. Some hang from the closet rod; others hook over a door.

For men with built-in water skis for feet, (as my husband quips of himself) who need larger-sized shoes, in the 12 - 13 size range, these options may not work, as they are generally designed for smaller shoes.

Zippers up the Back

Once the storage issues are addressed, there is the matter of actually getting dressed. This can be another exercise in frustration for those with flexibility or motion impairments.

Many clever solutions that have been invented. Back in the day, many women's dresses had long zippers running up the back as a fastening medium. In fact, the "Honey, can you zip my dress?" theme has been worked to death in the comics and movies.

Today, I'm not so sure--I've refused to wear dresses for over 20 years, now; I'm strictly a jeans/or/sweats kind of gal--so that may or may not still be an issue. But, if you or a loved one still struggles with up-the-back zippers, there are extensions with a hook that can save the day!

Putting on Shoes

Nevertheless, zippers or not, there is still the matter of putting on your shoes, once you've fetched them from your handy-dandy rack. Who remembers shoe horns? Right. Those little plastic spoon-shaped affairs that pinched your fingers in the process of slipping on your shoes. Well, folks, they've been re-invented, and can now be found as long as 18 inches or more.

Perhaps some of us remember the teen fad of a few years back, with elastic shoelaces that ended up in tight coils at the tops of the eyelets--even tying a bow was not necessary. All you had to do was give them a tug, and off you went.

Guess what? They're still available! So, for us gals, who may want to toss a bit of style and whimsy into our self-sufficiency routines--have at it!

At the Sink

The kitchen comes in second only to the bathroom for slips, falls and other accidents. It shares the same issues with the bathroom of hard and slippery surfaces everywhere you turn.

It is a tossup as to whether the sink, with its potential for spilled water slips, or the stove and oven, with their threat of burns that is the more dangerous area. In my opinion, though, while burns are never fun, slipping and falling with fragile bones is less so.

So I would recommend always having a non-skid throw rug in front of the sink. Be sure it lays flat, and has a good grip. Most of them are washable, but the rubberized backing will rapidly fall apart if put into the dryer, so it is best to have a pair of them, so one can always be on the floor even if one is in the wash.

Please note, however, eventually, the rubber backing will break down anyway: at this point, throw it away, and get a new one, for the deteriorated backing does not grip, and in fact becomes brittle and very slippery--worse than no mat at all.


When working at the stove, all the usual safety precautions apply, and it is more a matter of being aware and being careful. There are not really any devices to assist with this. Keep in mind:

  • Tie long hair back away from your face
  • Wear short sleeves or roll up long sleeves
  • Use oven gloves and pot holders to handle pots and pans
  • Have extra oven mitts, and do not use wet ones--you will get a steam burn
  • Wipe up spills right away
  • Try to keep one hand free for balance against counters while moving about the room

Using an acrylic holder for your cookbook can also help keeping your hands free to steady yourself as you move about.

Stay Safe Outdoors, Too!

It is a mobile society in which we live, so there are also considerations to be made for travel, whether it be to the grocery store, the doctor's office, or a vacation. We are all familiar with canes; they are probably among the very oldest of assisted-walking devices. But the 'now generation' of canes is quite a far cry from what they used even in our grandparents' day, let alone centuries ago.

We now have canes that let us "take a load off" and sit a spell. Then, there are tripod canes with 3 feet, and quad canes with 4 feet, for better balance. As an added plus, you can let go of these momentarily while shopping, and they won't fall over--they'll stand there patiently waiting until you're ready to continue.

Other mobility assists such as motorized scooters are well-known, and probably deserve an article of their own by someone with the experience in the matter to make useful comparisons.

Here's to All Our Beloved Elders

And here's to you if you find yourself with me, approaching your "golden years."

The Vulcans of the TV series, "Star Trek" used a standard greeting and farewell:

"Live long and prosper." I leave you with the less-often heard reply, "Peace and long life."

© 2012 Liz Elias


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