Setting Up a Safe Space
When you’re caring for a parent or a loved one living with Dementia at home, setting up a safer space may help prevent them from tripping, falling, and becoming confused. Creative home updates that help your loved one see or find objects more easily and move through the home independently may also help keep them happier, healthier, and safer at home for longer. Here’s how to make a home that is Dementia-friendly so they can make the most of their daily living space.
For starters, basic home safety is an essential factor in Dementia care. “People living with Dementia are more vulnerable to trips and falls because their coordination, balance, and spatial awareness may be impaired,” says Aldrich Chan, PsyD, a neuropsychologist who practices in Miami. Getting rid of trip hazards in the home—such as long cords, wires, clutter, and rugs—may help prevent your loved one from falling and injuring themselves. Remove clutter, swap long cords (such as electrical or extension cords) for shorter versions, and remove any rugs or mats that may be tripping hazards.
Another way to help prevent trips and falls is by installing motion-activated night lights to help people living with Dementia see where they’re going when they get up in the dark and also see better in poorly lit areas. Consider placing such lights in the kitchen, hallways, and bedroom, and around the stairs.
Pay Particular Attention to Smoke Alarms
You’ll also want to ensure that the home’s smoke detectors are functioning and that the alarm, should it go off, is loud enough for someone living with Dementia to hear even when their ear is on the pillow, and covers are over their head. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, you should check your home’s smoke detectors monthly and get new ones every 10 years.
Store and Secure
Storage safety is another factor to consider in creating a Dementia-friendly home, and certain items should be placed behind locked cabinets. For example, someone living with Dementia may confuse household cleaning products—such as detergents, laundry or dishwasher pods, and colorful liquid cleaners—with candy, edible foods, or drinks. These products are extremely toxic and dangerous to ingest. Plastic bags may also be a threat, as they may inadvertently become a suffocation hazard for people living with Dementia. Knives, scissors, and other sharp, pointed objects are also safety risks. “People living with Dementia may experience behavioral and psychological symptoms that can lead to agitation, confusion, or even aggression,” Chan says. “Access to sharp objects increases the risk of self-harm or harm to caregivers and family members during distress.” A Dementia-friendly home should have all of these items stored in cabinets with locks that can be found in the “childproofing” section of a big box retailer or on the Internet.
Stairs may pose another safety risk. Put brightly colored or reflective tape on the edges of the steps, and ensure all the steps are sturdy and secure. You’ll want to install textured strips or use non-skid wax on floors made of hardwood or tile to keep them from becoming slippery. “Preventing accidents in the home is so important when people are living with Dementia,” Chan says.
In the kitchen, choosing appropriate appliances is key. People living with Dementia may forget they turned an appliance on and walk away from the kitchen, which may be dangerous or create a mess, depending on the appliance. Choose small electric appliances that will shut themselves off after a specific amount of time, such as tea kettles or drip coffeemakers. Although expensive, automatic shutoff switches can be installed on the stove. Another approach is to remove knobs from stoves and secure them when not needed.
Disconnect or Make it Difficult to Operate Machinery
You may also consider disconnecting the garbage disposal to help prevent any potential injuries. People living with Dementia can become confused and have “altered judgment, and that could result in their putting inappropriate or non-food items in the disposal, leading to clogs or damage,” Chan says. If disconnecting the disposal doesn’t make sense for the rest of the household, ask an electrician to put the on/off switch inside a cabinet and secure the cabinet when not in use.
If your loved one forgets where things in the kitchen or around the house are located, labeling cupboards, cabinets, and drawers with their contents (or including photos) may help them visualize what’s inside. Labeling can preserve the person’s dignity, Chan says. “By using labels discreetly, it allows individuals living with Dementia to maintain their independence, as they can more easily locate items without constant assistance,” Chan says.
When it comes to the bathroom, set the home’s water heater to 120°F to help prevent too-hot temperatures when washing hands or using the shower or bath. Installing handrails, a bath seat, a plastic shower stool, or a handheld showerhead may make showering and bathing easier.
Certain color choices in the bathroom may help identify essential items. If possible, have toilet seats, handrails, towels, and soap in contrasting colors from the walls and their surroundings. For example, if the bathroom walls are white or beige, a colorful toilet seat or toilet seat cover may be easier for your loved one to identify, as opposed to a standard white one, and a green bar of soap may be easier to see than a white bar on a white countertop.
Replacing shower curtains that have busy patterns with those that are solid colored may make them less confusing and distracting as well. Lastly, to help prevent your loved one from slipping and falling in the bathroom, buy larger, non-slip bath mats or install non-slip flooring throughout the bathroom. Some floor tiles can be made more non-slip through special surface treatments without replacing them. Check with a professional flooring expert to get it done right if you want to go in that direction.
People living with Dementia can have difficulty managing locks, Chan says, so you may want to remove the locks from the bathroom doors to help prevent them from getting locked inside. Instead, you may wish to install non-locking lever-style door handles on both sides of the door.
Mirrors Can Have an Interesting Impact
You may also cover or remove mirrors in the bathroom and elsewhere in the home. People living with Dementia may not understand the concept of their reflection, and seeing “someone” in the mirror may become a source of anxiety for them. Use a hand mirror alongside the person living with Dementia if you want to show them something on their face or in their mouth or to gently help them better cope with mirrors and reflections if removing all reflective surfaces is impractical.
In the bedroom, it’s helpful to clarify what’s what. Paint the bedroom door a different color from the hallway to make it easier for the person living with Dementia to recognize. Choose bed linens in colors that contrast with the carpet so the bed is easy to see, such as navy bedding on the cream carpet. Likewise, furnish the room with sofas and chairs in colors that contrast with the walls. This will help them stand out and be easier for your loved one to see. A sturdy chair with armrests can make it easier for the person living with Dementia to maintain their balance while getting dressed and putting on their shoes.
You’ll also want to decorate any large glass panels, picture windows, and sliding glass doors with eye-level decals so they’re identifiable and no one walks into the glass.
Make these changes to the home gradually. You never want to make major updates to a loved one’s living space overnight. Significant changes may cause people living with Dementia to become even more confused, so update slowly so they have time to adjust to a new layout or adaptations.
Bottom-Line, Change Only What Helps
All of these changes might not be necessary for everyone, so evaluate the living space and see what basic home safety updates may be necessary and what additional Dementia-friendly home design ideas may be helpful.
Authors' opinions are not necessarily those of the Dementia Society, Inc. We do not endorse nor guarantee products, comments, suggestions, links, or other forms of the content contained within blog posts that have been provided to us with permission, paid or otherwise. Dementia Society does not provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor. www.DementiaSociety.org
Contributing Author: Beth W. Orenstein
Beth W. Orenstein is a freelance medical writer. A magna cum laude graduate of Tufts University, Orenstein has written for HealthDay, EverydayHealth, and the National Psoriasis Foundation and is a regular contributor to American Legion Magazine's Living Well and Radiology Today.
● NHS: How to make your home dementia friendly. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dementia/living-with-dementia/home-environment/
● U.S. Fire Administration: Smoke Alarms. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/home-fires/prepare-for-fire/smoke-alarms/
● National Council on Aging: Home Safety for Older Adults: A Comprehensive Guide 2023. https://www.ncoa.org/adviser/medical-alert-systems/home-safety-older-adults/
● Better Health Channel: Dementia — safety issues. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/dementia-safety-issues
● National Institute on Aging: Home Safety Checklist. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/home-safety-checklist-alzheimers-disease
● Social Care Institute for Excellence: Dementia-friendly environments. https://www.scie.org.uk/dementia/supporting-people-with-dementia/dementia-friendly-environments/
● Social Care Institute for Excellence: Dementia-friendly environments: Toilets and Bathrooms. https://www.scie.org.uk/dementia/supporting-people-with-dementia/dementia-friendly-environments/toilets-and-bathrooms.asp
● Social Care Institute for Excellence: Dementia-friendly environments. https://www.scie.org.uk/dementia/supporting-people-with-dementia/dementia-friendly-environments/bedrooms.asp