House fires and burns are real dangers for older adults. The three big causes of house fires and burns are cooking, space heaters, and cigarettes. Always be sure there are working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors on each floor. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby that has been inspected in the last 12 months.
Many people with dementia want to live at home for as long as they can. Being able to cook is important for independence, but it has to be balanced with safety. As the dementia worsens, a person's abilities change. Therefore, it's important to check the person's abilities often to make sure they are still able to cook safely. This skill check is important to do whether the person with dementia is living alone, or with others.
Why Most People with Dementia Should Not Cook Alone
- They may start to cook a meal and forget what they were doing.
- They may leave the stove on for too many hours or overnight.
- They may burn food on the stove top and cause a fire.
- They may lose sense of time and leave water boiling in a pot too long. The water may dry up completely and the pot can melt from the high heat. They may burn themselves if they don't realize how hot the pot is.
- They may leave the gas on and cause an explosion.
- They may forget to be careful around an open flame and severely burn themselves or start a house fire.
- They may forget how to safely use a microwave and turn it on for way too long, or use metal containers.
- They may spill hot food or water on themselves.
Small changes in the kitchen can help people living with dementia to continue to cook, and lower the risk of fires.
Tips for Safe Cooking
- Label cupboards with pictures and easy words. Keep easy instructions nearby. Buy foods that are easy to cook or prepare.
- Remove unsafe tools, such as very sharp knives.
- Use things that are easy to identify and are used for only one thing, such as a kettle.
- Keep the kitchen well lit.
- Ask the gas or electricity company to get on their "priority service register." They will come to the home to do regular safety checks, and they will also teach about special safety options.
- Buy appliances that switch off automatically, such as an electric kettle.
People living with dementia should never use a space heater alone. Space heaters start half of all home fires in the winter months. Many models don't have the safety features. They may not automatically turn off when tipped over or when they get too hot. Also check to make sure the heater is not damaged. For example, don't use it if the cord is worn or frayed.
Tips for Safe Use of Space Heaters
- Make sure there is at least 3 feet of clear space around the heater.
- Place the space heater out of walking areas so people don't trip.
- Take away the heater right away if the person living with dementia uses it for drying clothes or other unsafe activities.
People with dementia should not smoke cigarettes when they are alone. The symptoms of dementia, such as forgetfulness and poor judgment, make smoking very risky.
Tips For Smoking Safety
- Ask them to only smoke outside. Never allow smoking in a home or building where oxygen is in use.
- Ask the person to sit in an upright chair without cushions when smoking, such as at a table.
- Don't allow them to smoke in bed.
- Make sure they don't drop hot ashes on their clothes or chair.
- Do not give them their own lighter or matches. Make sure the cigarette is put completely out when done.
Written by: Mindy J. Fain, MD, University of Arizona Center on Aging