Everyone wants to feel safe and secure in their own home, and seniors are no exception. You can help your self or a loved one by creating a safe living place. Here’s a look at some of the most common safety issues that affect mature-age homeowners, along with some handy tips to improve household safety.
Being burglarised is a traumatic experience for anyone, but seniors are left feeling especially vulnerable after their home has been violated by a break-in. Having appropriate home and contents insurance can alleviate some of the financial risks, but the psychological effects tend to last long after the burglary has taken place. Fortunately, there are some basic steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of a home theft. Have durable locks installed on all windows and doors, along with metal security grilles where possible. Trim any shrubbery that’s right up against your house, so you’re not providing burglars with a convenient hiding place. Thieves can steal your purse or other items while you’re still in the house, so always keep your front and back doors locked at all times.
Don’t leave spare keys outside. Thieves are experts at locating hidden keys – no matter how clever you think your outdoor hiding place is. If you have a neighbour that you trust completely, leave a spare key with them instead.
The fewer people you tell about your holiday plans, the safer your home will be while you’re away. To make it look like you’re still at home, install automatic or motion-sensor lighting. You may also want to consider installing a good alarm system, possibly even including CCTV cameras. If you have a shed in the backyard, make sure it’s locked up tight – otherwise, thieves might use your own tools to break into your house.
Always have a digital photo record of the most valuable possessions in your home. That way, if you’re burglarised, you’ll have proof of what you owned when it comes time to make an insurance claim.
According to the Australasian Fire Authorities Council, those most at risk from dying in a house fire are children under 4 years old, adults affected by alcohol and people over 65 years of age – with the risk increasing with age. Most fires are caused by electrical faults, lamps, smoking-related incidents, heaters and open fires. Statistically, more fire-related deaths in the home occur at night during the cooler months of the year.1
Smoke alarms are a must for every Australian home, and should be tested regularly. Most home fire deaths result from smoke inhalation rather than burns or heat exposure, so fitting quality smoke alarms is essential. Some house fires can smoulder for quite some time, and a large amount of toxic smoke can build up long before flames materialise. If you do see or smell smoke, get down on the floor (where the air is cleaner) and crawl quickly to safety.
Many house fires are causes by electrical problems, from burnt out refrigerator motors to a build-up of dust catching fire in computers, TVs or appliances that have never been cleaned. Lamps left burning at night near curtains are another common cause, as are candles and smoking in bed.
Every home should have at least one fire extinguisher and a fire blanket, easily accessible and ready to use. If you believe you can put out a smaller fire, do so. If the fire is out of control, evacuate your home immediately and call 000 (triple zero) to summon the Fire Service. If your clothes catch fire, remember the Stop, Drop and Roll rule to smother the flames on your clothing. Don’t try to re-enter a home that’s on fire – your life is worth much more than any valuables left inside.
Most house fires are preventable with a few simple precautions. Don’t sleep with electric blankets left on, and never smoke in bed. Always use a licensed electrician to perform any electrical work around your home. Don’t leave the stove unattended, and make sure tea towels and other flammable items are kept well away from cooking surfaces. Store any flammable liquids away from heat. Don’t sleep with a candle burning. Don’t overload your power points, and clean those piles of dust out of your computer hard drive. Clean your clothes dryer’s lint filter after every use, and have your chimney and flue cleaned once a year. Unplug electrical appliances when not in use.
Many parts of Australia are especially prone to bushfires, so it pays to have a bushfire action plan in place for your home. All state governments have websites that can provide essential information on how to prepare for bushfire season, as well as advice on exactly what to do as a fire approaches. Being properly prepared can make the difference between a safe outcome and the loss of your home.
Preparing for storm season
When measured by insurance costs, severe storms are the most dangerous natural hazard in Australia, and are annually responsible for more damage than earthquakes, bushfires, tropical cyclones or floods. Storms can be fatal, too – from lightning strikes, flying debris, falling tree limbs, exposed power lines and boat capsizes, just to name a few of the dangers.
Severe storms can happen anywhere in Australia. To prepare your home for storm season, start by trimming tree branches close to your house, and ensure your downpipes and gutters are free of debris. Check your roof tiles, and clear your yard of any materials that could become projectiles in a high wind. Make sure your home insurance is adequate, up to date and covers you for what you need. Sturdy, metal security screens on glass doors and windows aren’t just useful for burglary protection – they can also help protect your home’s glass from hail damage.
Prepare an emergency storm kit that includes a torch, spare batteries, first aid kit, portable radio and some materials to make quick repairs, such as tarps, rope, strips of timber, a hammer, nails, etc. Strong plastic bags have many uses in a storm emergency, and can even become makeshift sandbags in flood situations. If it looks like you may have to evacuate your home, add spare clothing, medications and portable valuables to your kit just before leaving.
If a severe storm is on the way, stay tuned to your local radio station for official warnings. Loose items like outdoor furniture and empty rubbish bins should be stored inside your garage or house until the storm passes. Disconnect all electrical items, including your computer and modem. Close and secure all windows and doors, pull your curtains and get your vehicles under shelter if you can.
When the storm arrives, stay inside away from windows, skylights and doors. If the roof starts to go or the building begins to break up, shelter under a mattress or a strong table for protection from falling objects. Because of the danger of lightning, don’t use your landline phone during a thunderstorm. After the storm has passed, check for damage and make whatever temporary repairs you can, but beware of flooded areas and downed powerlines.
Know who to call if you need help: you should have the numbers for your local SES, home insurer and power, gas, water and electricity suppliers at the ready.
Gas and electric safety
If you use gas for heating or cooking in your home, it helps to understand some basic safety rules. Always have gas appliances installed and repaired by a licensed/registered gas fitter, and only use approved AGI (Australian Gas Industry) appliances in your home. A normal gas flame should be blue; if it’s yellow or red there’s a problem, and you should have your gas appliance checked by a professional immediately.
Never use outdoor gas barbecues inside the house, and clean them well after using to remove excess grease. Gas cylinders should always be kept in an upright position, and stored out of the sun.
If you smell gas in your home, turn off the gas at the meter. Then, turn off all gas and electrical appliances and pilot lights, and contact a licensed gas fitter. If it’s safe to do so, ventilate the house by opening doors and windows. Don’t smoke. Don’t turn any light switches on or off or try to use a fan to help ventilate the area: these actions could potentially cause a spark and ignite the accumulated gas. Evacuate the area.
Gas poisoning can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea and other symptoms, so pay attention to the warning signs and exit the house if you believe a gas leak is making you ill. A gas leak from appliances can usually be smelled because of the added scent, but carbon monoxide is different: it’s odourless, colourless and tasteless – and it can kill. It occurs when there is incomplete combustion of fuels like gas, oil or wood, and it can be a problem in winter when people use ancient or faulty heaters in confined spaces with poor ventilation. Carbon monoxide gas can even pass through walls. Smoke alarms do not detect carbon monoxide gas, so it’s imperative to install both smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms in your home to protect against both threats.
Electricity makes all our lives easier, but it has its own share of hazards. Don’t try to perform do-it-yourself electrical jobs in your home – always use a licensed electrician for any work. Safety switches should be installed at your meter box, and tested 3 or 4 times a year by pressing the ‘test’ button. Don’t use electrical appliances near water, and if an appliance cord is visibly frayed or worn, don’t use the item until it has been repaired by an electrician. If you’ve experienced a water leak anywhere in your home, have your electrical system checked to ensure water hasn’t worked its way into any circuitry.
Don’t overload your electrical sockets. Use a power board with a built-in surge protector. When you need to change a light bulb, always turn off the power first and let the bulb cool for a few minutes before replacing it.
For seniors, the prevention of accidents (especially falls) can be aided by making a few alterations to the home. Slippery or worn kitchen tiles, outdated appliances, doorway thresholds with a lip, steep stairways and shower stalls (or tubs) that are unsafe to step over are common dangers that should be looked at.
Installing handrails in useful locations around the home can make life easier for older homeowners, and non-skid strips can be added to the bathtub as well as areas with floor tiles. For arthritic fingers, lever handles are easier to turn than round doorknobs. Many falls occur in the bathroom, so it’s worth considering a change to a lipless, walk-in shower with a built-in bench seat, or a walk-in tub (so the bather can sit and swing their legs into the tub). It is important to create a safe environment in and around your home to reduce your risk of falling. Falls are one of the main reasons that older people are admitted to hospital or need to move to an aged-care home.2
It is important to create a safe environment in and around your home to reduce your risk of falling. Falls are one of the main reasons that older people are admitted to hospital or need to move to an aged-care home.
Whatever renovations you decide upon, make sure you have them performed by a licensed, professional contractor with plenty of experience in completing these types of modifications.
Unfortunately, even with caution and a safe home environment, medical emergencies can still occur. When they do, it’s vital to have all your emergency phone numbers readily accessible: police, fire, family members, personal physician, poison hotline, etc. If you rely on a mobile phone, keep it charged so it’s ready when you need it. Assemble an emergency kit for home use, as well as an evacuation kit in case you have to suddenly leave your home due to a bushfire, cyclone, flood or other natural disaster. Organisations like the Red Cross can provide helpful information about what to include in an emergency kit.
One should consider investing in to Emergency Alert devices. The elderly person wears the transmitter around their neck, on their wrist, belt buckle or wheelchair. In case of emergency, the senior calls for help by simply pressing the alert button, without needing to reach the telephone.
For minor medical issues, ensure you have adequate first aid supplies available. With major medical situations, don’t hesitate to ask for outside help immediately. Because older bones are less robust and slower to heal than younger ones, treat any fall as a serious matter – especially if it involves a head injury.
Beware of dubious doorknockers, online scams and phone intimidators
Seniors are viewed as easy targets by unscrupulous ‘tradesmen’, fake donation solicitors, online romance scammers, identity thieves and criminals involved in over-the-phone deceptions.
Older people who live alone are particularly susceptible to online romance scams, where a suitor works hard at developing an online relationship. Once a sufficient level of trust has been built up, they will then ask you for money – to help a sick niece, pay off a debt or ‘buy an airfare to visit you’. If you pay once, it’s likely they’ll ask for more the second time – and keep going until you finally realise your online ‘true love’ is just a smooth-talking criminal after your money. Love scams cost Australians over $23 million annually, and women over 50 are statistically the most vulnerable.3
Be especially wary of people who knock on the front door and offer to repair your roof, fix your fence, install some insulation or perform other handyman work around your house. They may be unlicensed, unqualified and incompetent, but that’s not the worst of it – if you make the mistake of paying them an upfront deposit, there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again.
You may get an email telling you that a virus has been detected on your computer, and the only way to have it removed it is to pay the sender of the email. These sorts of scams all feature an element of coercion designed to get you to part with your money as soon as possible without asking too many questions. Don’t fall for the lies!
Phone scammers use a number of ploys to extract money from vulnerable seniors. They might claim they’re from the Australian Tax Office (they’re not), telling you there’s a $60,000 tax rebate owing to you – which you can only collect after paying a fee of $10,000. Other tax-related scams involve a phone call informing you that you must pay an overdue tax bill by the end of the day – or you’ll be arrested. Intimidation is the key ingredient here, so when in doubt, hang up and contact the ATO directly.
Online scams abound: you may get an email telling you that a virus has been detected on your computer, and the only way to have it removed it is to pay the sender of the email. A variation on this theme is when someone claims there is pornographic material embedded on your PC, and if you don’t pay the scammer to remove it, they’ll advise the Federal Police. These sorts of scams all feature an element of coercion designed to get you to part with your money as soon as possible without asking too many questions. Don’t fall for the lies.
Seniors on a fixed income are often drawn to ‘guaranteed income’ scams, which promise untold riches by ‘following our step-by-step training program’ – a program that seems to cost very little at first, but becomes far more expensive as more ‘essential training materials’ become necessary. Unfortunately, the only folks making untold riches are the fraudsters. With all ‘work from home and get rich’ schemes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Your home is the most valuable asset you own, so keeping it safe starts with obtaining quality Home and Contents Insurance. Insurance can’t magically eliminate the prospect of house fires, home theft, electrical motor burnouts, storm damage or burst pipes, but it can certainly help homeowners (senior and otherwise) to deal much more effectively with the aftermath – and provide the peace of mind that comes with being financially protected against the unexpected.