After someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the first thing the patient and their loved ones want to know is how to treat this progressive, degenerative brain disease.
But the next thing they want to know more about is safety -- a huge issue, since adults with Alzheimer's and dementia have a much higher risk of injuring themselves around the home than their healthier counterparts.
Although safety becomes a primary concern, people often don't know where to begin or the practical things they can do in their homes. Plus, making a caregiver aware of these options can be a challenge.
"We need to find a balance between not scaring a caregiver about what could happen when a loved one has Alzheimer's disease and supportively making them aware of what to be thinking about and watching for," said Scott Trudeau, project director for a home safety study of people with dementia funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Fortunately caregivers usually don't need to make elaborate and costly modifications to their homes, as there are simple things they can do to help their loved one remain safe -- and live more happily as well.
"The goal is to structure the environment to be as supportive as possible for the person with Alzheimer's disease to continue to do what they like to do," explained Margaret Calkins, president of IDEAS Inc., a company that specializes in designing supportive environments for older adults, in Kirtland, Ohio.
Adaptations in the home become appropriate when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and as their thinking skills decline.
"I look at what changes there are in the brain, then look at how the environment can be designed to compensate for that so in enables the person to function," said Paul Raia, vice president for clinical services for the Alzheimer's Association of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Regardless of the stage of the disease, increasing the lighting in the home is an important first step, Raia advised. Boosting the wattage on bulbs or adding a fixture or another outlet to a room goes a long way in creating a safer environment.
According to Raia, Alzheimer's patients at mid-stage of the disease need 50 percent more light to see at the same level of acuity because their retinal function goes awry.
More lighting during the day can also reduce sundowning, a worsening of behavior -- usually an increase in agitation and irritability -- seen in the late afternoon and early evening.
Bathrooms can be particularly hazardous places for a person with Alzheimer's disease -- and not just because of their slippery surfaces.
Many bathrooms are monochromatic, with white tubs, white sinks, white toilets, white doors, and very often white or opaque flooring, walls and tiles. Being surrounded by all that white makes it hard to see the edges of objects for those whose sight is not 100 percent.
As a further complication as the disease progresses, a sufferer might lose the ability to see certain colors -- mostly pastels, which are seen as grayish, explained Raia. "But a person's ability to see bright primary colors remains intact," he said.