Independent Living Starts With Home Safety

By Suzanne Mulligan Born on January 23, 2014

Whether you are a Baby Boomer, Senior, Caregiver or Parent – Independent Living Starts With Safety

I look around my home and realize we are at an interesting stage. I find myself checking that the path is clear when I turn out the lights at night: I don’t want to trip in the dark if I want a glass of water. I had to do a quick scan before my mother or father-in-law visited in the past: no small carpets that could interfere with the use of their walkers, a clear path between their beds and the washroom, nightlights turned on. And now I realize I am doing a similar check before the grandchildren come over! Admittedly, this is a brand new stage for us, but with one almost 2 year old and one less than 6 months, there is lots to think about.

It has made me realize that home safety is home safety. Best practices to keep everyone safe are not restricted to age categories. Granted a fall can have much more serious consequences when we are older. I have learned the hard way my bones are not as forgiving. But home accidents can happen at any time to anyone.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

As the old saying goes, it is much better to avoid problems in the first place, than to fix them after the fact. And it’s cheaper!

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘accident’ as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance,” and “an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance.” Obviously many accidents can be avoided with a little knowledge and planning.

Here are some very simple questions to consider, designed to help you become proactive in establishing a safe environment in your home for people of all ages. Of course, if you have older family members living in their own homes still, these questions will help you assess their environment as well.

Many of the points are so simple – but how many people do you know who have had an injury from tripping, falling or doing some activity that seemed innocent at the time – only to land them in the emergency department.

General Home Safety Tips

  1. If you have throw rugs and scatter mats, do they have non-skid backing on them to keep them from slipping? These types of rugs and mats can be treacherous. If you can part with them, it’s a good idea not to have them at all. My mother’s generation could not live without small rugs everywhere! If you have to have them, do not put them at the top of stairs where they can present a tripping hazard.

  1. If you use floor wax, do you use the non-skid kind?

  1. Do you have an easy-to-read list of emergency telephone numbers near the telephones?

  1. If you live in an apartment, and have trouble getting around, are you registered on your building’s fire safety plan? Every apartment building is required to have a fire safety plan, which, among other things, indicates which tenants need help to evacuate the building in case of an emergency. And by the way, if you are still employed, your employer should also be aware of any special requirements you may need in case of an emergency evacuation.

  1. Are your traffic areas clear of telephone or electrical cords?

  1. If you have older appliances, have you recently checked them for worn or frayed cords?

  1. In general, is your home well lit?

  1. Are the floors in your home free of obstacles, such as toys and parcels; and do you watch that your pets are not underfoot?

  1. Do you have a carbon monoxide alarm in your home?

  1. Do you keep important documents in a fire resistant box or in a safety deposit box? Does your family know where that is?

Safety Outside of Your Home

  1. Are the front steps and walkway leading to your house or apartment in good repair? If there is an elevated crack, consider spraying some neon paint on the area to highlight it for yourself and others.

  1. Does your front and back entrance have an outdoor light?

  1. Do the lights go on automatically when you enter the driveway or approach the door?

  1. Does the doorway to your balcony or deck have a low doorsill or threshold – does it present a risk for tripping?

  1. Do you have non-slip surfaces on the balcony, porch or patio?

  1. Are stairs and walkways kept free of snow, ice or leaves? Does the surface provide good traction? It is never too soon to ask for some help when shoveling snow or mowing the grass. Stories of persons having heart attacks while trying to do these jobs are all too common.

  1. Do you have handrails for use going up and down the porch stairs?

  1. Is your address clearly visible? This may mean on your house, mailbox, and even on the curb. If you have a large lot or live in a rural area, an emergency vehicle has to be able to easily see your address during the day or night. If the address is in large numbers, but is restricted by trees, consider how you can improve the visibility.

  1. If you live in a rural area, can a visitor tell an emergency vehicle where to come in a straight forward manner? Consider having simple directions to your home by each phone in your house. They should refer to main roads and identifiable landmarks, so anyone could find your home quickly in case of an emergency. You cannot always depend on the emergency vehicle’s GPS system to find you quickly. I have had two experiences with this problem: one in my last job and now in my new home. The postal codes were brand new and that means the GPS does not recognize them! A new postal code basically does not exist as far as the satellites are concerned. In a time of crisis, I want to be sure I can be found quickly.

Safety on Stairs

  1. Do you have light switches at the top and bottom of the stairs? Three way switches that can both turn the lights on and off regardless of whether you are at the top or bottom of the stairs are great.

  1. Are your stairs in good repair?

  1. Do the steps of your stairs have a non-skid surface?

  1. If you have runners, carpeting, treads or any other kind of floor covering on your stairs, are they well fastened?

  1. If the stairs are wood or concrete, have you considered painting a stripe of contrasting color on the edge of each step or the top and bottom steps?

  1. Are there solid handrails or banisters on both sides of the stairway?

  1. Are stairs free of clutter? My mother had a bad habit of using the stairs as an extra storage space, like a series of shelves. I find myself putting things on the steps to help me remember to take them up or down – not a good habit!

  1. If you have pets, do you turn the lights on and scan the steps? Our cat has a habit of getting cozy on a step and she blends in with the carpeting!

Safety in the Bathroom

  1. Are hot and cold faucets clearly marked?

  1. Do you test the water temperature before getting into the bathtub?

  1. Do you have a rubber bath mat, or a non-slip surface to make the bathtub or shower less slippery?

  1. Do you have grab bars that have been properly placed, by the toilet and near the bathtub? Are they well anchored to the wall?

  1. Is the light switch close to the entrance?

  1. Do you have a night-light in the bathroom?

  1. If you have trouble taking a shower standing up, do you have a bath seat so you can take a shower sitting down?

  1. Do you use electrical appliances such as hair dryers and shavers well away from the shower, sink and other sources of water?

  1. If you have any trouble getting on and off the toilet, do you have a raised toilet seat and a grab bar?

Safety in the Kitchen

  1. Are your pots and pans, canned goods and staple foods (such as flour, sugar and so on) stored in an easy-to-reach location?

  1. Are heavy items in the lower cupboards and light items in the higher cupboards?

  1. Do you have a stable step stool (with a safety rail) for reaching high places? At our age, a collapsible step stool from the dollar store is NOT a good option.

  1. Are the “off” and “on” positions on the stove dials clearly marked?

  1. Are your oven mitts in a handy location? Note that oven mitts are better than potholders as you can get a better grip with gloves. There are some great new gloves on the market that can be a terrific gift on special occasions. The have 5 fingers, rather than a big padded mitten.

  1. Do you have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, mounted on the wall away from the stove?

  1. Do you know how your fire extinguisher works?

  1. Do you regularly check that your fire extinguisher is in good operating order? They actually have an expiry date and even if you have never used it, it will have to be refilled or recharged.

Safety in the Bedroom

  1. Is there a light switch near the entrance to your bedroom?

  1. Is there a clear path from your bed to the bathroom?

  1. Do you have a phone near your bed?

  1. Do you have a lamp or a light switch near your bed? We tried the lights that turned on when you clapped for our mother, but they were only practical when she was relatively healthy. It is surprising to see how much strength it can take to clap loud enough for them to work.

  1. Do you have night-lights in the halls in case you get up in the middle of the night? You can purchase light sensitive night-lights, which dim during the day and brighten when it gets dark – and you can get them at your local dollar store!

Safety in the Garage / Basement / Workroom

  1. Do you have a telephone in the basement, garage and workroom? I had never considered this question. My mother did the laundry in her basement, and if you she had the need to call for help, it would have been much better to know a phone was close by without her trying to get back up the stairs.

  1. Are your workroom and laundry room well lit?

  1. Is your work area well ventilated?

  1. Are all chemicals, such as bleach, cleaners and paint thinners, in their original containers?

  1. Are all chemicals stored as indicated by the directions on the label?

  1. Are flammable materials, such as paint, paint remover and lighter fluid, stored away from sources of heat and flame?

  1. If you have a gas barbecue, is your propane tank stored outside of the house?

  1. Are you newspapers regularly discarded?

  1. Are heavy items on lower shelves or bottom cupboards?

  1. If you use a ladder, is it safe and in good repair? I bet there is not one of us who does not know of at least one person who has fallen off a ladder by reaching, trying to carry something, or otherwise doing a job that someone younger should have been doing. Even if your ladder is safe and in good repair, consider asking for help when you need to use it. And enforce a rule that no one should be using a ladder unless someone else is home at the time.

Fire Safety and Prevention

  1. Is there adequate room for space heaters to operate? Keep them at least three feet from anything that can burn. It is good practice to unplug heaters when you shut them off, leave your home or go to bed.

  1. Never leave cooking unattended. If a pan of food catches fire, slide a lid over it and turn off the burner. Don’t tell my children, but I had a terrible habit of turning on a burner and leaving the kitchen to ‘quickly’ do something in another room. I have scared myself with one too many close calls. If I HAVE to leave the room, I now set a timer for a few minutes to remind me that something is simmering. Or – even better – I turn the burner off again, until I can come back and give it my full attention.

  1. Would you know what to do if a piece of your clothing caught fire? Stop, drop, and roll. Stop right where you are, drop gently to the ground, cover your face with your hands and roll over and over to smother the flames. If you cannot do that, smother the flames with a towel or blanket. Immerse burns in cool water for 10 to 15 minutes. If burns are severe, get medical help immediately.

  1. Although this is repeated from the Kitchen questions, it is worth repeating: Do you have a fire extinguisher handy in the kitchen? Do you get it tested regularly? Do you know how to use it?

  1. When was the last time you checked the smoke alarms in your own home and in your parents homes. Smoke alarms save lives. Install smoke alarms outside all sleeping areas and on every level of your home. Test smoke alarms once a month by pushing the test button. Make sure everyone in your home can hear your smoke alarms. Don’t let your family become complacent. It is easy for someone to say ‘oh that is just grandma cooking’ when the smoke alarm goes off (trust me, I know!). Replace the batteries every year. Pick a date, like Halloween, that will remind you it is time to get a new battery.

  1. Does everyone in the family know what options there are for fire escape routes? It is important to plan your escape around your abilities. There may have been a time when you could climb down from an upper level, but that may no longer be reasonable. Once you have escaped a fire, stay out and call the fire department from a neighbour's phone. Consider getting stickers from your local humane society to tell the fire department that there are pets in the house.

  1. Are fireplaces a hazard? Someone living in an older home or in the country may have a wood-burning fireplace. Ensure there is no build up of creosote in the chimney by having it cleaned regularly.

  1. Are there smokers in the house? Unfortunately, some of us still have to worry about aging parents that insist on smoking. Provide smokers with large deep ashtrays. Encourage them to wet cigarette butts and ashes before emptying ashtrays into a wastebasket. Urge them to never smoke when lying down, drowsy or in bed. And again, make sure there are enough smoke alarms!

Calling for Help

Consider the peace of mind you will have if your parent has a medical alarm. The cost is minimal and it is good to know that it is much more likely they can press a button to call for help than to make it to a telephone if there is an emergency. It may not even be necessary to talk to the dispatcher. We used to test my mother’s medical alarm regularly. They told me if she pressed it and then did not answer when they spoke to her through the speaker, they would immediately send an ambulance. It is wise to see what options and services are available in your area.


There are many aspects to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. As our Marketplace evolves, we will bring you product reviews from our friends in the Home Health Care market.


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By Suzanne Mulligan Born| January 23, 2014
Categories:  Care Giving

About the Author

Suzanne Mulligan Born

Suzanne Mulligan Born

Suzanne is a freelance writer, researcher and copywriter. She has a passion for writing about accessibility and issues affecting seniors.

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