Safe at Home: 10 Signs Mom and Dad Need Help

December 16, 2021

Holiday gatherings in the family home provide moments of connection and memory-making. This time spent in your parent’s environment can also tell you a lot about how they are able to function from day to day. A visit after several months away can give you a snapshot of how well your loved one is able to function while living independently. Light household clutter is common enough. So how do you know if clutter is starting to indicate a larger problem?

As organizers, we are trained to assess the function in a space. Many people assume that we are primarily looking for aesthetic fixes, however household safety is always our primary filter. We are especially in tune to safety when we provide organizing assessments for seniors, as these clients can have mobility and sensory issues that will amplify minor factors. Decades and decades spent in the same house can lead to a build up of possessions. If clutter and excess is not routinely managed, a home can quickly become dangerous for someone who doesn’t see, move, or discern like they used to.

Originally posted on Commonwealth Senior Living’s blog, here are ten of the most common clutter habits and conditions that we flag as safety concerns:

1) Trip and fall hazards:

Clutter on the floor and in walkways is not only the most common household safety issue that we see related to clutter, but potentially the most dangerous for a senior because of the health risks from falls. As clutter on the floor that began as a stack against a wall grows, it may begin to creep or fall into pathways. Look for traffic areas where items need to be stepped over or around. Any items stored on stairs are especially dangerous because a stumble on the stairs is likely to be more severe.

2) High stacking on upper shelves:

When items like board games, albums, or serving pieces are stacked and above shoulder height, there is a risk of the stack toppling over onto your loved one when disturbed. Deep spaces or areas with poor lighting are particularly dangerous. Many years ago, one of my clients told me a story of attempting to retrieve a serving platter for Thanksgiving from a deep upper cabinet in her kitchen. When she pulled out the platter she wanted, another ceramic platter suddenly came tumbling out and landed “like a guillotine” on her foot. She had to be rushed to the ER on Thanksgiving morning!

3) Obstructed cleaning and dusting:

Cluttered surfaces are harder to clean than clear surfaces. In order to wipe down shelves or counters, all items must be removed and then replaced. When the volume of clutter builds up, these routine tasks become overwhelming. Build up of dust and dander can lead to poor indoor air quality. Look for signs of deferred or limited housekeeping— such as crumbs building up around grocery items that are stored on the counter— especially if housekeeping has declined noticeably since your last visit. Also notice whether items are building up in areas that were previously maintained clear.

4) Expired food and medication: 

When items are not routinely examined for usefulness and purged, the resulting build up can cause confusion. Beyond the inconvenience of searching for misplaced items, ingesting expired food or medication can be dangerous. Look for canned goods and condiments that are stored past their use by date and expired medications that are stored alongside current ones.

5) Overloading electrical sockets or excessive use of extension cords:

We typically see this happen when stacked clutter in one part of a room obscures wall outlets. The remaining outlets that are clear become overloaded as they perform double-duty. Sockets taxed beyond their current rating can be a major fire hazard. If too many appliances get power from one socket, it can overheat and catch fire. Extension cords that run along the floor can pose a trip hazard.

6) Covered registers:

All heating and air equipment needs to remain clear of debris for proper air flow and air quality. Floor registers, in particular, can easily become blocked by clutter. Check that air filters show signs of being replaced regularly and all registers and vents are free to circulate clean, filtered air.

7) Blocked exits:

The space behind doors is a tempting out-of-sight spot for stashing clutter. Ensure that all doors are clear of debris and can swing or slide open to their full range. I’ve been in homes where all but the main entrance were unintentionally barricaded by the volume of stacked clutter. In case of an emergency, any major pathways or entrances may need to be used by an occupant or first responder. These travel areas must remain clear.

8) Dense stacking of combustible material:

Look for stacks of magazines, newspapers, cardboard, or file boxes that could become a fire hazard.

9) Items being stored on cooking surface or inside oven:

Once, on a call with a prospect, the caller explained to me that although her sister was alarmed by the clutter in her kitchen, she felt the space was still functional because she had “the one burner” that she kept clear for cooking. Even non-flammable items can become dangerous if left too close to a cooking source. Any heating surface or heating element must remain clear of debris at all times, even when not in use.

10) Duplication/excess:

We have a saying in professional organizing that “clutter begets clutter.” When basic household items are hard to locate because of clutter, it’s often more convenient to run to the store and pick up a replacement instead of searching for the thing you think you have. This problem is very common, even in light to moderately cluttered environments. With aging seniors, large volumes of duplicated purchases may also be an indicator of cognitive decline affecting memory or impulse control.

When you have the opportunity to visit your family members in their daily environment, use these indicators to assess safety conditions. Sudden or noticeable changes in housekeeping habits can often be the initial clues that a house is becoming a burden. If you notice signs that maintaining a household may be starting to overwhelm your parent, it might be the right time to spark a family discussion about safer options for senior living.