As dementia and Alzheimer’s progress, one of the biggest concerns caregivers face is the increased risk of falling. There are many reasons for this. One major factor is cognitive decline. As memory declines, those with dementia will forget about obstacles in their path. They also forget their own limitations. For example, your loved one may not remember that they cannot walk by themselves from their favorite spot in the family room to the bathroom. They’ll attempt to get up on their own like they’ve always done and could end up falling.
As a caregiver, there are several steps you can take to ease your anxiety and reduce the risk of falls for your loved ones with dementia.
Understand the Cause
Falls are common for those with dementia. One of the first steps to lowering stress is to understand why falls occur. Then if they do happen, you won’t feel as worried or overwhelmed. (Stressing about: “Is there something more serious that’s wrong?”) Dementia patients experience issues with visual-spatial skills, especially as the disease progresses. They may not realize that a patch of ice is on the walkway, or the terrain is uneven. Sometimes even recognizing that the color of the floor changed—signaling a different floor surface—is not possible. Depth perception is skewed, and they may think curbs or steps are closer than they are, leading them to lose their balance and fall.
Most dementia patients will develop a shuffling gait, where they shuffle their feet as they walk, instead of picking each foot up and taking a step. This shuffling can lead them to trip over throw rugs or other obstacles in their path, creating a serious fall risk.
How to Avoid Falls
When caring for a loved one, we can use all the dementia help we can get. Now that you understand why falls happen, take the following steps to be proactive in preventing falls or injury.
Clear Their Paths
One of the most effective ways to minimize falls with your loved one is to clear the pathways throughout their home. Throw rugs and mats may have a functional purpose, but they pose one of the biggest risks for tripping. Go through their living space and make sure you remove throw rugs and mats. Even if you’re able to tape edges down, the change in the floor’s surface can be enough to cause them to stumble. It’s best to remove them.
While you’re removing the throw rugs, look around for other potential tripping hazards in the home. For instance, remove or relocate any books on the floor, small stools, floor pillows, or other low-sitting decorative items (even potted plants).
Keep the Lights On
While you may be conscientious of energy usage, keeping your home well-lit, even at night, is another simple way to prevent falls. Many dementia patients get up and roam throughout the night. Even if you’re accompanying them on trips to the bathroom, having the lights on will help keep them more comfortable and ensure you both don’t end up taking a tumble.
Consider low-level night lights that turn on when other (higher-energy-pulling) lights go off. If applicable, you can also explore motion-sensor detectors.
Another common cause of falls comes from trying to reach things in high cupboards using a stool or chair. This is a good time to move everything out of higher cabinets and shelves and into lower storage areas. Pack away or donate lesser-used items. Everything you or your loved one needs should be within an easy, reachable distance. (Hint: this is also a great time to purge and spring clean storage and cabinets in your home. Clutter can also cause anxiety for those with dementia as well).
Some caregivers find it helpful to label the cabinet doors so their loved ones can easily find items even when their memory begins to fail them.
Make the Bathroom Safer
Bathrooms are another area where falls happen. Make sure there are grab bars near the toilet and in the shower area, as well as non-slip adhesive strips for the tub or shower. When shopping for a shower chair, look for a sturdy model that won’t tip easily.
Invest in a Wearable Medical Alert System
Even if you always have a caregiver or friend present, consider investing in wearable medical alert devices like necklaces or bracelets. What if you need to run out to the mailbox, or a fall happens while you’re asleep? Medical alert systems ensure that if someone falls, they can always reach help. This will also reassure your loved one with dementia.
Refer to this guide from Consumer Reports for the top options.
Create an Injury Plan
Another resource to relieve your stress as a caregiver is to have an injury plan in place. Injury plans answer questions such as:
- What will you do if a fall occurs?
- For non-serious falls, is there a friend or family member you can call if you can’t lift them yourself?
- What are the addresses and phone numbers of local emergency rooms or urgent care?
- If your loved one is alone, how can they call for help?
Create a one-page injury plan and hang it somewhere easily accessible. Many caregivers find that having a physical (and visible) plan can provide peace of mind.
Get Dementia Help to Prevent Falls and Injury
Caring for someone with dementia can be a challenge, but minimizing risks of falls can help prevent unnecessary injury. Also, both caregivers and those with dementia can experience significant anxiety; being proactive about at-home-safety can give you invaluable peace of mind.
At Vineyard Henderson, we use motion-detected lights, to ensure residents are never in the dark. We also provide specified guidance to set-up and stage living areas to create the safest environment possible. If you or a loved one needs dementia help, contact your nearest Vineyard community, or consider joining one of our support groups.