Tips for the Elderly on Health and Safety

Note to Editors: These ideas are provided by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension’s Ideas for Better Living program. You may use them as written or contact us for more information. If you wish to include a contact for the public, please direct them to the Colorado State Cooperative Extension office in your area, listed in the county government section of the local phone book.

Osteoporosis – "brittle bones" disease – affects much of the elderly population.

Americans spend more than $14 billion each year repairing some 1.5 million bone fractures resulting from osteoporosis. This debilitating disease affects 20 percent to 30 percent of women over the age of 60. It is estimated that one in two women and one in eight men over age 50 will eventually experience an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their lifetime. Osteoporosis is seen in small-framed women, particularly white and Oriental women, age 40 to 50.

Factors associated with increased risk of osteoporosis include a family history of the disease, removal of ovaries at an early age, cigarette smoking, inadequate intake of calcium, hormonal imbalances and insufficient exercise.

Bone mass measurement is considered the most accurate predictor of fracture risk. Technology is now available to determine bone mass (or density) safely, conveniently and at a relatively low cost.

Several treatments available for osteoporosis

Estrogen replacement therapy has been used to treat osteoporosis in postmenopausal women with variable results. Decrease in estrogen production, which signals menopause, causes an increase in the normal rate of bone loss. Estrogen treatment tends to slow down but not reverse menopause. Use of the hormone, however, is somewhat controversial because of the potential for increased risk of uterine and breast cancer as well as other complications.

Treatment with calcium supplements with and without vitamin D and its effects have been studied by several researchers. Treatments have proven to slow down but not reverse osteoporosis once it has already developed.

Exercise is an important part of the osteoporosis treatment. Movement that causes the body to work against gravity facilitates the flow of calcium to the bones and the maintenance of bone density. In one study, those who exercised one hour three times a week increased their total body calcium by 2.6 percent over a year’s time. Exercise, however, can be risky for people with osteoporosis. If they are not cautious, unsafe situations may lead to the possibility of fractures.

Prevent osteoporosis with exercise and diet

Bones, like muscles, need to be stressed. They must be regularly subjected to weight-bearing activities such as walking, jogging, dancing, bicycle riding or playing a racquet sport. Exercise vigorously at lease 20 minutes three to five times a week.

One of the most important nutrients in reducing risk of osteoporosis is calcium. For maximum calcium retention and to build strong bones, children aged 4 through 18 should get 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day. For adults aged 19 through 50, 1,000 milligrams of calcium is recommended daily to maintain calcium balance and reduce risks of osteoporosis. After age 50, recommended daily intake increases to 1,200 milligrams.

Bone strength and rigidity come from the proper balance of calcium to phosphorous. The ideal ratio of calcium-to-phosphorous is one-to-one. More phosphorous than calcium, as happens when soft drinks replace milk in the diet, results in bone loss, especially if a sufficient amount of vitamin D is unavailable.

Calcium is an important dietary nutrient in preventing osteoporosis

There are many ways to get calcium into your daily diet. Here are a few:

  • Dairy products: Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, etc. (Not butter, cream and cream cheese because they are mostly fat and contain little if any calcium.)
  • Non-dairy: Dry beans and fish with edible bones such as sardines and canned salmon. (Buy packed fish to save calories and rinse with water if monitoring salt intake.)
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, greens, such as collard, kale, mustard and turnip. Tofu or soybean curd may be a good source if made from a calcium coagulant such as calcium sulfate.
  • Supplements: If you are unable to consume sufficient levels of calcium through diet, your doctor or dietician may recommend calcium supplements that are right for you. Here are two example of supplements: calcium carbonate (found in a few antacids, such as Tums) and calcium gluconate, which is less constipating than calcium carbonate but more expensive per milligram.

Protecting yourself against fraud

Scam artists frequently target older consumers believing that they have more money from life savings or they have valuable property. Fraud often begins with a contact that the consumer did not initiate. To avoid being targeted, consumers should say "no" or hang up on unsolicited calls and walk away from unsolicited contacts in stores or malls. They should also say "no" or turn away door-to-door salesman. Do not complete prize or contest offers received in the mail. Last, always delete any unsolicited e-mails. Consumers can better protect themselves and their family members by being aware of the tactics used by con artists.

Make good decisions on how to spend your money

Here are some good ways to avoid spending money and getting nothing in return. Avoid high-pressure sales that demand an immediate decision. If feeling pressured, say "no." Do not pay money up front for a service or product. Do not make advance payments (taxes or other fees) to participate or to claim a free prize. Free is free. Do not sign any legal papers that aren’t understandable. Do not make any major decisions without getting several opinions first.

Keep your information safe and secure

If consumers want to protect themselves from identity theft, take the following precautions. Carry important documents only when absolutely necessary. Never give out financial information and identification documents to those who initiate a telephone call, street solicitors, or door-to-door salespeople. Consumers should only give out their Social Security and Medicare numbers on transactions that they have initiated. They should not have their Social Security number printed on checks or driver’s license. Have it removed if it is already printed on checks or license.

Be wary of scams and sales tricks

Sales people will often use various tactics to con consumers into giving away their hard-earned money. Be cautious of "buzz" or fancy words that sound too good to be true – easy credit, bargain loans, free or reduced cost for products or services. Toss any solicitation that doesn’t clearly identify the company, its street address and phone number. Consumers should watch out for unsolicited checks that, if cashed, sign them up for products or services that they may not want or need. Do not let strangers enter the home.

Telemarketing fraud is on the rise

Telemarketing fraud is selling misleading products and services by phone. Consumers should be skeptical when they hear a sales pitch using these well-known telephone scams:

  • The promise of a loan that requires a payment of an advance fee.
  • The offer of worthless credit card loss protection, requiring personal information. Consumers do not need this coverage.
  • Credit repair promising that negative, but accurate, information can be removed from someone’s credit file for a fee. Accurate information cannot legally be removed and there is no fee for removing inaccurate information.
  • Prize offers for consumers in which they have to do something to get their "free" prize – attend a seminar, buy something or give out their credit card number.
  • Charities that have names similar to reputable charities. Ask the charity for a written report of its programs, services and finances. Disreputable charities won’t send out written information or wait for consumers to check them out.
  • Recovery scams promising consumers they will get the money they lost back from previous scams. Even law enforcement officers can’t guarantee they’ll recover the losses.

Identity theft can happen to you

Identity theft is when a fraud pretends to be someone else and uses their personal financial information or identification to gain access to their accounts or records. Consumers need to protect themselves against identity theft. Wear a close-fitting pouch instead of carrying a purse. Do not place bill payments in your mailbox for carriers to pick up; mail payments at the post office or a postal drop box. Shred all financial documents instead of just throwing them away. Reduce the number of carried credit cards to what is actually needed. Consumers should be aware of others seeing or hearing their confidential information when entering a PIN number, using a pay phone, cell phone, or laptop computer in public. The damage done by identity theft is enormous to a consumer’s credit and life, so they should be cautious when it comes to their personal information and identification.

Health Care, Medicare or Medicaid fraud is targeted at older adults

What is Health care, Medicare or Medicaid fraud? It is when a misleading claim is made for a variety of products and procedures such as vision correction, dietary supplements, weight loss products or services, health spas and equipment, sunscreens and other products. It occurs when someone knowingly deceives or misrepresents himself in a way that could result in unauthorized Medicare or Medicaid payments being made. Ask questions, review medical bills and follow these practices. Consumers should beware if offered free services in exchange for their Medicare number. Don’t give out Medicare health insurance claim numbers to anyone other than Medicare providers or physicians. Be careful in accepting Medicare services that are represented as being free. Be wary of a provider that claims to be endorsed by the federal government or Medicare.

Home improvement and repair frauds can be avoided

People who are committing home improvement and repair fraud typically offer a bargain price by claiming that they have just finished a job and have material left over. Common door-to-door home improvement frauds include painting, tree trimming, roofing and paving repairs. They may require substantial payment in advance or after quoting a low price, they charge much more after the work is completed. This type of fraud can be avoided. Get at least three bids from contractors and do not make a hasty decision solely on price. Hire a legitimate contractor and use a written contract that lists the materials used and gives a completion date. Pay little or nothing in advance and never pay with cash. Last, do not make agreements for home improvements over the Internet and do not send money or a credit card number in advance.

Predatory mortgage lending may result in the loss of a home

Predatory mortgage lending victims are older homeowners with substantial equity in their homes but limited incomes. Predatory mortgage lending is a deceptive practice in which someone’s home serves as collateral for a loan that often involves high interest rates, hidden fees, extreme default penalties and punitive prepayment penalties. Such a home loan, which is based on the owner’s equity in the home and not on their financial ability to pay, may result in the loss of a home.

Avoid con games

Three con games to avoid include the bank examiner, travel club and utility inspector scams. Con artists are good at taking innocent victim’s hard-earned money and belongings. Be informed and aware; don’t let it happen.

Con artists may pretend to be a bank examiner. They call the victim and explain that a bank employee is suspected of altering withdrawal slips. The scam artist convinces the victim to make a large withdrawal from their bank account to help trap the "guilty employee." The pretend bank examiner then takes the victim’s money and disappears. Banks do not use account holder to trap employees.

There is also a con using a travel club. A company offers a bargain airfare or hotel package to a glamorous site. The offer may only be for one person and the prices are very high to add additional accommodations. Additional fees may also be charged for services that one would expect to be included in the package.

Last, there have been cons known to pretend to be utility inspectors. A person gains access to a victim’s home by claiming to be working on a problem in the neighborhood. Once inside, the victim is distracted by one offender while an accomplice steals money and valuables.

Prevent accidents in the home

Home accidents are a major source of injuries and can even cause death. The elderly are especially vulnerable to serious injuries from home accidents. Here are some general safety tips on keeping a household safe:

  • Post emergency numbers and the home address by each telephone.
  • Install windows that are easily opened from the inside but have secured locks that can prevent someone from entering from the outside.
  • Have an emergency exit.
  • Store medications in a safe place according to instructions on the label of the package or container.
  • Keep appliances, lamps and cords clean and in good condition.
  • Provide electrical overload protection with circuit breakers, fuses or ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI).
  • Don’t plug more into an extension cord than its proper load, as indicated on the cord or appliance. They should be placed out of the traffic flow, but not underneath rugs and furniture.
  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and keep them in working order.

Prevent accidents in the kitchen

Kitchen safety is important and can especially be a hazardous area to the elderly if no safety precautions are taken.

  • Keep the range and sink area well lit.
  • Gas ranges should be equipped with pilot lights and an automatic cutoff in the event of a flame failure. It also should not be located under a window with curtains that might fall onto the burner.
  • Install kitchen exhaust system that is internally vented, discharges directly outside, or through ducts to the outside and not into the attic or other unused space.
  • Locate light switches near the door.
  • Make sure oven controls are clearly marked and easily grasped and are also located on the front or side of the oven.
  • Keep hot pads or pan holders near the range.
  • Turn the exhaust fan on when using the range.
  • Install safe and non-slip flooring.
  • Unplug small appliances when not in use.
  • Always use a stepladder or stepstool rather than a chair to reach objects in overhead cabinets.
  • Wipe your liquid or grease spills at once.

Stairway and hall safety is important in preventing accidents

To ensure a safe, accident-free home, these safety precautions should be taken for all households.

  • Make sure foyers have non-slip entrances.
  • Check condition of steps and securely fasten the carpeting.
  • Install smoke detectors in the hallway near sleeping areas.
  • Equip hallways and bathrooms with nightlights.
  • Install and securely fasten sturdy handrails on both sides of the hallway.
  • Locate light switches at the top and bottom of stairways.
  • Make sure inside doors do not swing out over steps.
  • Provide adequate lighting in stairways and hallways.

A safe living room can help to avoid accidents

Home accidents are a major source of injuries and can even cause death. The elderly are especially vulnerable to serious injuries from home accidents. Here are some living room safety tips.

  • Place electrical cords along walls, not under rugs, and away from traffic areas.
  • Make sure chairs and couches are sturdy.
  • Clear passageways for traffic and make sure there is enough space to walk through the room.
  • Make sure furniture that might be used for support when walking or rising is steady and does not tilt.

Check your bathroom’s safety

The bathroom can be a dangerous place, especially for the elderly. The following safety tips will help to avoid a fall or other possible accident.

  • Install a nonskid mat or strips on the standing area in front of the bathtub or shower.
  • Installed grab bars on the walls by the bathtub and toilet.
  • Firmly install towel bars and soap dish in the shower stall that are made of durable materials.
  • Locate the light switch near the door.
  • Make sure the bathroom has safe, supplemental heat source and ventilation system.
  • Install outlets that are ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) to protect against electric shock.

Prevent accidents in the bedroom

To make the home safer and a more comfortable place to live, here are some things that can improve the safety of the bedroom area:

  • Keep a lamp or flashlight within reach of your bed.
  • Use a night-light to brighten the way to the bathroom at night.
  • Make sure there is plenty of room to walk around the bed.
  • Have an adequate-sized nightstand or small table for the telephone, glasses and other important items.
  • Make sure there is a telephone in the room in case of an emergency.

Safety outside is just as important as inside

Residents must feel safe and secure in order to be able to relax in their homes. Here some safety tips for the outside areas of the home:

  • Install strong dead-bolt locks on front and back doors.
  • Install a burglar alarm, if possible.
  • Install security lighting outside the house.
  • Install peepholes in all outside doors to see who is at the door before opening it.
  • Check steps and walkways to make sure they are in good condition
  • Securely fasten handrails and make sure they are sturdy.
  • Check to see if doorways, steps, porches and walkways have good lighting.
  • Make sure porches, balconies, terraces, window wells and other heights or depressions are protected by railings, closed with banisters, closed with fences, closed with accordion gates or are otherwise protected.
  • Trim hedges, trees or shrubs to have a view of the street from the driveway.
  • Check to see that garage doors are easy to operate, even when snow is piled against them.
  • Make sure ventilation in the garage is adequate.