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Posted: July 31, 2008

Keeping Loved Ones Independent

Assuring Safety and Ease in Mom's Kitchen

Editor’s Note: Safety and mobility go hand in hand in determining whether an elderly person can continue to live independently -- the goal of almost every senior. But dangers lurk, and caregivers need to be alert to ways to protect loved ones along the way. In this feature series, Solutions for Keeping Loved Ones Independent, we outline what caregivers need to know to help keep their loved ones safe and independent.

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The kitchen is often called the heart of the home, but for the elderly it can turn into a room of heartache. Just put yourself in your loved one’s shoes for a minute and look around their kitchen, with its dangers and sources of frustration.

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Even small tasks such as chopping, pouring or holding pans steady, can be challenging to the elderly. A tightly sealed bottle or jar can be difficult for anyone to open, but for a person with shaky hands and stiff fingers it can be nearly impossible. Reaching for appliances or dishes stored in hard-to-reach cabinets can be dangerous. Wet floors near the sink and fires on the stove are dangers that become more pronounced when balance is unsteady or reaction time is slow.

Fortunately, there are ways to help our elderly loved ones continue preparing their own meals while also keeping them safe. In addition to simple changes that you can make to the kitchen set-up, there are a number of handy gadgets available that make tasks easier. Here we’ll suggest steps that you and your loved ones can take to help them operate independently and safely in the kitchen.

Do an Assessment
Experiencing your loved one’s kitchen the way they do can be eye-opening. Watch Mom and Dad as they go about meal preparation and clean-up, taking note of any obstacles they encounter. Are small appliances like blenders or mixers tucked away in low, hard-to-access cabinets? Are often-used dishes stored on high shelves? Can Mom reach the knobs at the back of the stove – and can she read them? Are the sink faucets difficult for her to turn?

Even as their caregiver with close ties to Mom and Dad, you’ll probably be surprised by how many seemingly small obstacles prevent your loved one from maneuvering in the kitchen. Once you have a list of those obstacles, you’ll be able to help them make changes that can make life much easier for them.

Accessibility
One of the biggest obstacles in the kitchen is also the easiest to solve. You might be horrified to discover that Mom teeters dangerously on a rickety chair every time she gets down her favorite serving dish, or that she struggles to bend over and lift the mixer from its storage place in a low cabinet.

Making everyday items readily accessible is an easy step that can prevent injuries from lifting or falling. Simply move those heavier small appliances to the counter and leave them there. Keep the often-used dishes, pans and serving pieces in the easiest to reach cabinets.

Make sure there is a very sturdy stepstool handy so Mom and Dad don’t climb on anything unsafe. Check your hardware store for stools with safety handles, like the Little Jumbo Safety Step (sells for about $150).

Stove Safety
It’s no surprise that the stove area is potentially the most dangerous part of the kitchen. Make sure there is a working fire extinguisher and a fire blanket within easy reach, and show Mom and Dad how to use them properly. Make sure there are working smoke detectors, and change the batteries every six months.

Avoid scalding accidents by switching to saucepans with glass lids that allow you to see inside without lifting the cover. If Mom likes to cook vegetables on the stove, get a pot with a steamer basket that can be lifted out so she doesn’t have to lift a heavy pot of hot water and carry it to the sink for draining. Have a heat resistant surface on either side of the stove so pans can be put down immediately when removed from the oven. Keep the stove clean and the area around it free of clutter.

If your loved one’s vision is impaired, it can be helpful to mark the oven OFF position with a sign in large bright print. If stove safety becomes a serious concern, you may want to help your loved one shop for healthy microwavable meals and show them how to use the microwave safely.

There are many inexpensive adaptive tools and gadgets available to help with safety and accessibility around the stove. Stove knob turners help people who have difficulty grasping and turning knobs, and extended handle stove knob turners allow your loved one to reach knobs at the back of the stove. These sell for between $14 and $20. An oven rack push-pull stick ($12) can prevent burns from reaching into the oven to remove pans. You can shop online for adaptive kitchen tools at www.seniorsuperstores.com, www.thewright-stuff.com, www.arthritissupplies.com and elsewhere.

Sink Safety
We don’t really think of the kitchen sink as dangerous, but it can present hazards. Faucets that are hard to turn can lead to sudden scalding, as can hot water temperatures that are set too high. Leaks and tight work spaces around the sink can lead to slippery floors that cause falls.

These simple changes will make your loved one’s kitchen sink area are much safer:

Help with Everyday Tasks
Adaptive tools are available now to help with just about any kitchen task imaginable, and more come on the market every week. These clever devices can relieve your loved one’s frustrations and prevent accidents.

Tools that makes cutting and chopping easier and safer include adjustable knives with slicing guides ($20), finger protectors ($6), and cutting boards made for one-hand operation ($20 -$40).

Multi-openers and gripping pads make opening jars, bottle screw-tops and fly-top containers much easier and can be purchased for between $5 and $20. A bladeless can opener ($30) blunts the sharp edges on cans that can lead to cuts.

Give some of these suggestions a try and you may not only make your loved ones’ lives easier, you may gain some much-needed peace of mind while keeping them safer and prolonging their independence.

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Click here for the first installment in this series, focusing on bathroom safety for the elderly.

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Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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