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Keeping Your Parents Safe at Home

There are a number of things you can do to tip the scales in your parents' favor for safely living at home. The ideas and strategies I'm going to share with you will work for both parents, Dad, or Mom. But because I've received so many calls over the years from friends who are struggling with their mother's decision to live alone, this article will focus on Mom. But of course, the strategies apply to either parent.

The operative word here is decision. Don't think you're doing Mom a favor by picking out new digs for her to live in. She also might not be hot on the idea of living with you—even if you have the room and all the resources in the world to accommodate her. To give up her space represents much more than bricks and mortar. It means acknowledging that she's not the independent go-getter she used to be and that she's vulnerable—to falling and no one being there to help, or falling prey to people who'll take advantage of her. None of this is too easy to accept. So don't go rushing in to fix things and take control. It's control that your mom is worried about losing. So let's find ways to reinforce her sense of control and make her safe.

Outside Safety

Senior Alert

Never hide a house key outside the house, even in one of those cute turtle statues or fake rocks, and certainly not under the mat or flowerpot. Burglars are far too aware of where we “clever” homeowners hide our keys. Consider installing a keyless lock (available at any hardware store). Of course, the neighbors will need to know the code and your mom must be able to remember it.

The first thing you want to do is make sure Mom's surroundings are safe, so that she doesn't start confining herself to the house because she's afraid to go outside or to come home in the dark. Make a point to come home with her in the early evening to better identify her safety concerns and needs. Think of the things that would make you feel safer. Here are a few ideas:

  • Motion-sensitive lighting. Perhaps it's time to install new lights that automatically turn on when there's any movement near them. For any would-be intruders, an automatic light outside the entryway tells them someone is at home and is aware that they are in the driveway. The other advantage is that, even if Mom forgets to turn on the lights before she leaves during the day, the light will be on for her when she comes home.
  • Lights on timers. Mom should also have timers for outside lights and a light in the bathroom to turn them on and keep them on throughout the night so that anyone casing the house will think someone is up. Timers are an inexpensive way to burglar-proof the house. They are installed by simply plugging them into an electrical outlet.
  • Keys and the neighbors. If your mom lives in the old neighborhood where you grew up, you may still know the neighbors. If not, when you visit her get to know a couple of her neighbors. If she's living in a high-rise, get to know the security people (if there aren't any security guards, meet the neighbors across the hall). The purpose of getting to know the neighbors is to identify someone that you and your mom trust to have an extra set of keys to her house. Share phone numbers so that if either of you becomes concerned about Mom—she hasn't answered the phone or the mail is piling up—you can call each other and the neighbor can look in on her.
  • Getting into the house. If your mom drives and has a garage but no automatic garage-door opener, now would be a good time to get one. If you have siblings willing to help with the cost, the opener can become very affordable. There are also systems available that turn on a radio a few minutes before Mom enters the house, so that the noise can alert a burglar to run rather than be surprised and possibly hurt Mom as he attempts to escape. Wherever she parks the car should be well lit, which can also be controlled by remote control as she enters the driveway. Make sure the pathway to and from the house is clear of any obstacles so that Mom won't trip over them. If bushes create a good hiding place for an attacker, trim them or relocate them to another part of the yard. Mom should always ask taxi drivers and her friends to please wait until they see her enter the house.
  • Friendly local police. Most communities throughout the country have local police who will drive by Mom's neighborhood as a security measure, if you ask. You should also find out from the local police if there is a neighborhood watch group in her neighborhood and let the group know she lives alone, and that you'd appreciate it if they kept an eye out for her.
  • Friendly postal carriers and utility meter readers. Most mail carriers work the same route every day and get to know a neighborhood quite well. The U.S. Postal Service has a program to alert the area agency on aging if the carrier believes there is a problem. Utility companies do the same. Call the local area agency on aging to find out if this program exists in your community (1-800-677-1116).
  • Security systems. If you can afford it, investing in a security system not only protects your mom; it also provides her with peace of mind. You'll need to make sure, however, that she can easily operate the system so that she's not constantly triggering the alarms. Be sure to be part of this decision, so that she isn't sold something more complicated or extensive than what she needs. And don't forget the simple things, like installing a peephole in the front and side doors, a deadbolt, and an intercom so she won't have to open the door to a stranger.

Inside Safety


Personal medical alert systems can be found in the Yellow Pages under Medical Alarms. You can also ask your family doctor, local hospital, or medical supply store for a referral. Some companies will sell you a system where you buy the equipment. This can become pretty expensive, costing upward of $2,000. Most people pay a monthly fee of around $50 month.

“I've fallen and I can't get up.” What most people fear when living alone is that something will happen to them—a fall, a stroke, a heart attack—and they won't be able to get to a phone to call for help. If this is of great concern to your mom or she has a condition that raises the likelihood that such a situation could occur, look into getting a personal medical alert system. These systems offer your parent a choice of wearing a necklace with a pendant on it, or a bracelet like a watchband. If there's an emergency, all she needs to do is push a button and it will alert an emergency responder, who will send in an emergency crew. Some systems are able to activate an intercom on Mom's phone to ask her what is wrong, before calling a responder.

There are several different systems out there, so do your research. Some charge for the devices separately, while others include everything in their monthly service fee (similar to cell phone contracts that include the phone). The most important thing you need to know is the capability of the answering service. Be sure to ask …

  • What kind of training has the staff who receive the calls had?
  • What formal relationships does the service have with the local emergency response services in the community?
  • If English is a second language for Mom, does the service have an interpreter?
  • What is the company's average response time?
  • Is there a trial period for the service?

Be sure to test the system once Mom brings it home, to determine its range throughout the house and how far she can use it outdoors (such as on trips to the mailbox).

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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