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Keeping elderly safe at home


Dear Patty: My mom and dad still live at home. They do not want to move from their home but I worry because my mother will sometimes walk outside and, with her dementia, we are afraid she might wander off. My father tries to keep up with Mom, but there are times when he might nap and is afraid he will not hear her opening the door. Also, Dad sometimes forgets to give Mom her medications on time.

I know you are an attorney, but I was hopeful that you might have some suggestions just from your experience with elder clients.

Technology is amazing. My clients have often shared their tips on how they help Mom and Dad safely stay in their home as they age. Here are some of the suggestions:

Your father certainly needs to be able to have a few minutes for himself, but worries that he may not be aware that your mother is wandering. There are GPS tracking devices that, when worn, can track someone who has wandered away. These devices can be expensive and do not prevent your mother from putting herself at risk walking down the street, but could aid in finding her if she wandered away.

Some clients use a monitor like a baby monitor that can either be sound only or even a video monitor. Your father can carry the receiver with him wherever he goes. Some monitors reach as far as 2,000 feet. Monitors can also be somewhat expensive.

When one client put a cowbell on the front door so he could tell when it was opened, his wife learned to hold the bell still when opening the door, despite the fact that she had advanced dementia. He then found a less-expensive alarm that was activated by movement, called the wireless driveway alert alarm. The alarm is actually quite small and includes a small electric eye that he sat unobtrusively near the front door and a battery-powered alarm that he kept by his recliner, in the bathroom or in his bedroom, depending on the need. Then when his wife walked within 3 feet of the front door, the alarm would sound with a “ding-dong” and he would know she was “making a run for it.” One family thought about putting a deadbolt lock on the door, but your mother needs to be able to get out of the house unassisted in the event of a fire. So I would not recommend a deadbolt lock.

Forgetting medication can prove to be dangerous in some situations. Setting several alarm clocks to remind of medication might be helpful. There are even alarm clocks that can record several personal messages to remind your father when it is time for Mom’s medicine.

One large family assigned times to all of the children and grandchildren, so that there was always someone who would call to remind a loved one to take medication and to make sure that there is no emergency. If the parent didn’t pick up the phone, someone was dispatched to the house to make sure there wasn’t a fall.

There are even pill dispensers with an alarm that eject the correct pills so the loved one cannot over-medicate.

What happens if there is an emergency for your father? What if your mother or even your father falls? How would your father get help? Companies providing security home monitors often will include a “panic button” that a resident can wear around his or her neck to call for help in the event of a fall or debilitating illness. I would suggest that a panic button is not as useful for persons with dementia, because the parent will simply forget the purpose of the button. Additionally, my clients have told me that a parent hesitates to use the panic button and prefers to call a child on the phone, instead. An alternative to the panic button might be to give your parent a cell phone to carry in his pocket or fanny pack. A prepaid cell phone, rather than purchasing an expensive plan, might be adequate.

Send me your thoughts and solutions for these and other problems that arise when a disabled loved one is aging in place. We can share for everyone’s benefit.

Patricia Flora Sitchler is a certified elder law attorney and assists families in planning for disabled children. Patty is a resident of La Vernia and maintains offices in San Antonio as a shareholder in the firm of Schoenbaum, Curphy & Scanlan, P.C.

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