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MS and Risk Management: Ways to improve safety and accessibility at home 

By Mary Pettigrew

I’m sitting here with an ice pack on my lower back because of a near miss fall. It was raining and I needed to run some errands. Although I was dressed according to the weather conditions, when I stepped outside my door, I slipped on a slick spot near my car and nearly fell because of the invisible sludge that had accumulated on the driveway. I was lucky not to fall, causing injuries much more serious than my current back spasm. I’ve made arrangements to have my driveway power washed.

This raises an important question all of us must ask ourselves: Is my home accessible enough for my needs? Is my living environment safe and conducive to my needs living with multiple sclerosis? 

Whether it be from the onset of diagnosis or years later as symptoms, progression, or mobility issues arise, our home must be safe and accessible. My doctor always asks if I’ve had any falls. Yes, I have fallen at home a few times. More than likely, all falls were preventable.

Here are just a few examples of some safety measures and updates to consider:

Bathroom: I’ve recently ordered a grip handle and grab bar to be installed in my bathtub/shower. Although I do have a shower chair, it’s not enough. When we close our eyes in the shower, we’re not always cognizant of balance issues or vertigo. Also, if the tub doesn’t have a rubber mat or slip proof decals, we’re setting ourselves up for dangerous falls. Personally, I don’t like the mats because mold buildup can occur. Do make sure to have a dry bathmat to avoid slips from water on the floor and keep bathroom floors clean. 

Here’s my cautionary tale: Eleven years ago, I didn’t use practical safety measures while shaving my legs. I stood up outside the tub and fell, landing hard onto my elbow. The fall created an open wound and swelling from the bursa fluid. As it’s easy for germs and bacteria to accumulate on the floor, I developed MRSA, a dangerous infection that took several weeks of treatment before it could heal. 

Kitchen: Cleanliness is another factor to stay on top of in the kitchen. If you don’t have someone to help you with the “grunge work,” focus on the priorities at hand and use energy-saving tools for cooking and cleaning needs:
  • Swiffer Wet Jet (or other wet/dry mops) and other tools for easy cleaning
  • Clorox Cleaning Sprays and other antibacterial cleaners
  • Scrubbing sponges – these can be bacteria magnets, so toss them out regularly
  • Appliances – Keep on counters at hands reach. Don’t keep heavy equipment stored away, forcing you to bend and lift unnecessarily.
  • Kitchen gadgets and cooking tools – Again, store these in cabinets and in drawers at hands reach.
  • Stove/oven/microwave – Are these set up where you can reach safely for cooking? 

Bedroom: Keep all wardrobe items accessible and conveniently stored. On a regular basis, go through closets and purge what doesn’t fit or you no longer need (donate all gently used items). Keep bedroom free of unnecessary clutter, debris, and other things that can be hazardous for mobility. Use Swiffer dust wands to keep dust at a minimum. Update mattress and bedding as needed for sleep health. 

Do you use your bedroom as a makeshift office? Speaking as someone who often does this, keep things organized and put them away when finished. Take regular stretching and vision breaks when using your laptop or iPhone in bed. This is a bad habit of mine and is very hard to break. My hips, back, and neck can suffer when I allow myself to remain stuck in certain positions too long. I’ve developed problems with dry eyes and lack of tear production, so I try to take timeouts from the computer screen and use lubricating eye drops on a regular basis (the Systane brand of hydration PF drops is my favorite). 

Hallways, Steps and Stairs: Keep lightbulbs changed for proper lighting and keep pathways clear of clutter. Install handrails and always use them when going up or down steps. If you use a wheelchair, other options may be needed requiring motorized lifts and the like. 

Floors, doorways, and clutter: Be mindful about your need to move freely and safely throughout your home. If you walk around in socks, make sure they have rubber stickers on the bottom. Rugs, carpets, hardwoods, thresholds, boxes, and furniture can pose risks of falls, trips, bumps and bruises. In other words, everything in its place.

Other things to consider for safety:
  • Pay attention to weather conditions – driving conditions, dress accordingly, prepare for power outages (do not rely on candles, keep batteries on hand, flashlights, LED lanterns, autocharge device for phones/laptops)
  • Inside and outside of your home – keep entryways free of debris and seasonal- or weather-related obstacles
  • Steps – If needed, install handrails, use a cane for support, or install ramps (for scooters and wheelchairs)
  • Update or add carbon monoxide detectors, security systems, and emergency plans for calling 911.
  • Get to know your neighbors

Take time to navigate from room to room and outside your home to see what areas and items could be problematic. Make a list of needs and modifications to address, then take care of these things as soon as possible. Do this before an avoidable accident happens.