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4 Ways to Keep Your Parents (And You) Safe

The U.S. safety agency has a new focus on people 65+

By Caroline Mayer

Fact: Older adults — those 65 and up — constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 65 percent of the annual fatalities associated with consumer products (from ladders to electrical fixtures to bedding).
Fact: Five million older adults seek medical treatment for injuries associated with consumer products each year, including 2 million emergency room visits. Forty percent of these visits are due to falls.
Fact: Older adults suffer consumer-product related injuries 1.5 times as often as younger ones and are hospitalized five times as often.
Fact: The cost of injuries and fatalities to the elderly totals $100 billion annually.

(MORE: How to Help Your Parents Prevent Falls)

For Robert Adler, acting chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), these four facts spell big trouble. As he told me in a recent chat: “Any rational person has to see these statistics, and this bulging demographic, and realize we have a serious problem.”  
Indeed. Which is why it’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can to reduce our parents' risk for home accidents — and our own risk, too. Below, are four simple steps to do so.

For years, Adler notes, the CPSC has focused much of its attention on dangerous children’s products. And that’s as it should be, he says, since “children, particularly small children, are considered the most vulnerable group because they are involuntary risk takers.”
However, he notes, “seniors are a group that has been overlooked for too long.”

(MORE: Give Your Home an Ergonomic Makeover)
That’s why the CPSC recently launched a “Senior Safety Initiative.” (It helps that the commissioners are at or nearing that magic “senior” age and the staff is too — or has parents that are, says Adler, who’s quick to note that he’s 69.)     
Included in the initiative is a reorganization of the agency to help it more quickly spot products that may pose greater risks for older Americans.
Thanks to a study released last year, the CPSC has identified two dozen product categories where the rate of consumers 65 and older suffering from product-related injuries was considerably higher than for those between 24 and 64. They include: beds; mattresses and pillows; chairs and sofas; carpets and rugs; lawn and garden equipment and blankets.
At the same time, the agency is taking a closer look at products specifically designed for people over 65 and cracking down when they fail to work or are potentially dangerous.
Just last month, the agency announced a recall of a medical alert system, the Linear Personal Emergency Reporting System (PERS) Transmitters, because they failed to emit a low-battery warning, leading users to believe their transmitters were functioning when they weren’t.
(MORE: How to Help Keep Seniors In Their Homes)

A month earlier, the agency announced a recall of Bed Handles’ adult bedrails that posed an entrapment and strangulation hazard. The agency said it knew of three women who died after becoming entrapped between the mattress and the bed handles.
“Seven times more elderly die from [bedrail] entrapments than infants,” says Adler — a reason why the agency teamed up with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates medical devices, to issue a bedrail safety bulletin. The CPSC has directed its staff to work with the FDA and manufacturers to developer a voluntary bedrail safety standard.
Adler says there are plenty of other products he’d like to see made safer for older Americans. As an example, he says there’s no reason why ladder and stepstool manufacturers can’t make models with handrails for unsteady climbers. 
He also wants to educate consumers about how to be wiser and smarter using consumer products, especially as we — and our parents — age.
To help us reach that goal, here are some of four safety lessons for people 65+, which also happen to be useful at any age:
1. Assess the home to reduce the risk from falls. Remove the clutter and then make sure walking surfaces are flat and slip resistant. A useful precaution: Slip-prevention floor strips for bathrooms.
Upgrade indoor lighting to guarantee visibility when walking. One simple solution: nightlights in the halls and bathrooms for nightly trips.
Install handrails in showers and tubs — and, if need be, a shower seat for someone with balance problems.
2. Ensure the home is fire safe. This is especially important for older adults, who suffer between 35 to 40 percent of all residential fire deaths (even though, as noted earlier, they make up only 13 percent of the population).
According to the United States Fire Administration, in 2010, the relative risk of individuals age 65 or over dying in a fire was 2.7 times greater than that of the general population; it soared to 4.6 for those over age 84. 
So make sure all smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are in working order. Also, keep a fire extinguisher handy in the kitchen and keep ashtrays, candles, hot plates and other potential fire sources away from curtains, furniture, beds and bedding.
If you haven’t given up smoking, do. “If you’re not worried about cancer, you should be worried about fire,” says Adler.
3. Think ahead. Have furnaces, chimneys and other fuel-burning appliances inspected annually by a professional to make sure they’re working properly and not leaking poisonous carbon monoxide. Also, have an emergency plan to escape if needed; you may want to pre-arrange for a family member or caregiver to help you get out.
4. Take preventative action. To avoid electrocution, install ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) in potentially damp locations, such as the kitchen, bathroom, garage and laundry room. 
For poison prevention, make sure all medications are stored in child-resistant enclosures and are clearly marked to prevent grandchildren from accessing them. 
And to prevent burns, set your hot water heater to no more than 120° F.
Hopefully, taking these steps will help your parents and you avoid becoming scary safety statistics. 

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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