I don’t feel old. Well, after being in the car for a few hours, I do groan heavily when I get out and straighten up. And I have mixed up my thyroid medication with a sleeping pill (they look really similar!) once or twice. Actually, three times.
But when I’m at my desk working, taking a walk, having fun with friends or spending time with family — I feel like me. At dinner recently with a buddy from college, I felt 20. Right now, I feel the same way I have all my life. I feel like me.
On the other hand, I’m realistic enough to know that I can’t do some things as well as I could 20 years ago.
My night vision has deteriorated somewhat, and I avoid driving on highways or unknown roads after sunset. I have shrunk enough that I cannot reach items on the pasta-and-rice shelf in my kitchen cabinet. The kitchen stool has become my friend.
Unfortunately, although we are not old, we are getting more accident-prone as our bodily limitations catch up with us.
“There is a mind/body disassociation: People think they can do the same things they could at ages 20 or 30, but they can’t. For example, reflexes slow down and eyesight is not as sharp,” says Dr. Balu Gadhe, an internist with CareMore in Cerritos, Calif.
The trick to staying safe is to plan ahead, to know what could pose a danger and change our habits and our surroundings before accidents happen.
“Be prudent. Be cognizant of the changes that happen in our body and take precautions,” Gadhe advises.
(MORE: Give Your Home an Ergonomic Makeover)
Here are eight common household accidents you'll want to avoid and ways to stay safe:
1. Water burns
Causes: Oh, yeah, there’s nothing like a hot shower at the end of a tiring day. There’s hot, though, and then there’s HOT. Many manufacturers preset water heaters to 140 degrees, a temperature that, while fine for most, can chafe skin thinning from age.
Molly Carpenter, a caregiver advocate in the greater Omaha area and author of Confidence to Care points out that arthritis can make fingers less sensitive to heat and more susceptible to burns.
The fix: Easy. Turn the gauge down to 124 degrees — warm enough for comfort and hot enough to kill bacteria. You’ll also save money on your fuel bills. If you live in an apartment house or complex where the management makes water heat decisions, show them this advice sheet from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
2. Knife cuts
Causes: “Your grip gets less firm as you get older. A knife slips, and you have a nasty cut,” says Carpenter. “Low light — even if it’s the same lighting you’ve used safely for 40 years — may mean you don’t place the knife accurately,” she adds.
The fix: Invest in versions of basic utensils designed to keep you safe. Add lighting to your kitchen prep area; battery-powered LED fixtures will suffice. If you trust the sanitary conditions at your local grocery, buy pre-cut fruits and vegetables.
Causes: Two of the worst culprits, according to the American Red Cross: unsecured rugs and stairs.
The fix: Either tape or tack down throw rugs — or throw them out, says The National Institute on Aging. Staircases are most hazardous in the dark — and people are often reluctant to turn on lights so they won’t wake others.
Path lights innovatively solve this problem. Strips of LED lights can be easily placed along the stairway with double-stick tape. Powered by two AA batteries (so no power outlet is needed) and activated by motion, path lights can be used anywhere indoors you may walk in the dark.
Causes: Wet spots on the floor can be a killer. Literally.
The fix: Carpenter notes that puddles in the bathroom or kitchen often aren’t our fault — someone else, like a grandchild, may have been careless about drying hands.
“We can’t always see when floor is slick in a bathroom, and that makes it all the more dangerous,” she adds. Carpenter suggests having a towel that you can grab and quickly swipe over the tiles before you step into the room.
Causes: You know that mold you thought you could just scrape off of the sour cream that had been in your refrigerator for a few months? Not all of the “gone bad” damage is always visible (or smellable). To make matters worse, sell-by dates are often difficult to find on food containers. Plus, with all the things on your mind, how are you supposed to remember exactly when you stuck the leftover lasagna in the freezer?
The fix: Get yourself a waterproof marker pen and the kind of masking tape that’s meant for kitchen labeling. As soon as you get home from the grocery store, write the expiration date IN BIG NUMBERS on food containers or on a piece of tape you’ll stick to the container.
When you put away leftovers, use this handy chart from FoodSafety.gov.
If your refrigerator and freezer don’t have digital thermometers built in, use freestanding or hanging versions.
6. Vitamin poisoning
Causes: If you are reading this, you are probably over 50 and you’re still with it cognitively. So you aren’t about to drink household cleaners by mistake. However, there are several poisons you could ingest unintentionally.
Top of the list is vitamins. According to the National Institutes of Health, any multiple vitamin supplement can be toxic in large doses. The most dangerous are the minerals iron and calcium, but ingest too much vitamin C or zinc, and you could end up with pretty severe gastric upset.
The fix: Most likely, you won’t swallow an entire bottle of vitamin C if you’re trying to ward off a cold. You might, though, eat a vitamin bar for breakfast, decide on a refreshing vitamin-spiked smoothie for lunch and splurge with pasta for dinner — enriched pasta — all on top of your multivitamins.
Keep a food diary for a few weeks before your next medical checkup. You doctor or nutritionist can alert you to anything that might cause harm. Also, even if your kids are no longer living with you, it’s a good idea to have the poison control number taped some place easily visible, like your refrigerator door. That’s 1-800-222-1222.
7. Pill mix-ups
Causes: The great thing about generic medications: They’re a lot cheaper than name brands. The problem? They tend to resemble each other.
And if your prescription insurance uses a mail-order pharmacy, the pill might change from order to reorder, since these companies shop around to get the best deals. Thus, the pills, themselves, can confuse us. So can identical bottling, or our own mental exhaustion in the evening or fuzziness in the morning.
The fix: First, develop a routine. Keep the pills you take with meals in one place, morning meds in another, and nighttime pills in a third.
Clearly label all bottles with a marker pen (and a sticker if you need one). Don’t cover the prescription information.
Many people find pill cases that are divided by time of day helpful, especially if you need to take meds when you are not at home. (You will need to be sure you fill the compartments accurately.)
It’s also a good idea to write down your pill routine or schedule and tape it inside a bathroom cabinet door.
8. Muscle pulls
Causes: We’re not as limber, as strong or even as tall, as we were 20 years ago. Reach for a can on a high shelf or lift a heavy bag of garbage and you may suffer debilitating back pain for weeks.
The fix: Carpenter recommends that all of us 50-plussers make things easier for ourselves and invest in simple contraptions like wheeled garbage carts. You’ll find a great selection at big box home improvement stores and online.
Shopping carts not only help you get groceries from the store into your home, but they’re also useful for laundry and moving larger items from room to room.
Gadhe points out that starting at age 40, we lose 1 percent of muscle mass per year. “So right now is the time for baby boomers to have a reasonable fitness routine that includes weight-bearing exercises. You need to keep up your balance and bone mass, too,” he adds.
As for me, I no longer keep my thyroid and my sleeping pills in the same location. I also just threw out the rug that had been in front of the kitchen sink. Many times I have thought, “I’m going to trip on that someday.” Now I know that day isn’t happening.