Living Independently & Safely. How can you tell?


By: Laurie Ray, MSW, CMSW, C-ASWCM

Most of us assume that we will remain independent in our daily lives forever. Needing help?  Not me! But then reality hits. As we age or our lives become more complicated a little assistance with our independence is needed.


Speaking from experience and an unexpected life changing situation, I have learned how to balance the fine line between staying independent and learning how to accept occasional help if needed. Not unlike our aging loved ones things our abilities may begin to change and support may be necessary in order to remain safe.  Regardless of whether it is a cognitive or physical loss, these changes may be subtle, can be easily over looked, or ignored in an attempt try and preserve their dignity. Recognizing the signs of safety concerns in our parents and loved ones can be a very difficult task. As someone close to them it may be difficult to remain objective.  


So how do we measure safety?


 Key factors in determining a safe degree of independence may include looking for changes in the following areas:


Personal Care

  • Is their personal hygiene and cleanliness appropriate, clothes clean, worn correctly?  Is their appearance consistent with what was their norm in the past?
  • Do their clothes fit properly and correct for the time of year?
  • Can they safely use a washer and dryer?
  • Are there any body odors present such as urine, bad breath,?
  • After they say they have taken a shower are their towels wet or did they just turn on the water but not wash, bathe etc.?
  • Are they incontinent?
  • If they smoke are they any signs of ashes dropping onto their cloths leaving burn marks? Are they able to dispose of cigarette butts properly?


  • Are they able to maintain the cleanliness of the home, are they overwhelmed by basic housekeeping responsibilities, or have their typical habits changed?  
  • Are they moving around the home safely using adaptive equipment, or do they grab other pieces of furniture in order to stand or transfer?
  • Are throw rugs disheveled or are there any other signs of tripping or falling?  
  • Are they keeping the doors locked?
  • Are they able to use keys?
  • Are they able to correctly use a phone?
  • Do they struggle with the remote control of the tv?
  • If they have an emergency pendant have they used is inappropriately or are they calling 911 frequently for help with falls?
  • If they live in a continuing care retirement community that requires daily check-ins are they forgetting to notify the staff that they are ok, Is staff having to go check on them frequently?


Meal Preparation

Do they appear to be eating properly?  

Are they drinking enough fluids?

Are they safely storing their groceries or is food left out on the counter?   Does the refrigerator contain spoiled food? Do they have multiples of the same item not remembering when shopping that they have plenty at home.

Do they tend to stockpile things such as reusable containers from takeout foods?

Can they safely use kitchen appliances?


Medication Management

  • Are they able to competently manage their medication?  
  • Are they taking them properly?
  • Can they manage refills or do they need outside assistance?  
  • Do they use a pill box and who fills it?



  • Do they continue to drive?  
  • Are you comfortable with that decision and do you feel that they exhibit sound judgment when it comes to the use of the car such as distance, time of day, weather conditions?  
  • Have they experienced any episodes of getting lost or took longer than expected to reach a destination?
  • Are you noticing any new dents or damage to the vehicle?
  • If not driving are they able to coordinate their own transportation?



  • Are your loved ones able to stay active with family, friends, and social events?
  • Do they tend to remain home alone with little outside stimulation?
  • Are they no longer going to church, playing bridge, volunteering, exercising?
  • If they have a pet are they able to properly care for them, feeding, walking, and cleaning up after them?

These are just a few of the indicators to be aware of when there is concern with the safety and independence of a parent or loved one.  Most important changes or concern in any of these areas may not warrant immediate change in their living environment, but it may create an awareness that the parent may need additional support from outside resources to assist them in adjusting to any physical and cognitive changes that are apt to occur as one ages.  Services such as home care agencies, volunteer groups, pharmacy assistance, transportation services, and aging life care managers. The role of the care manager can be to assist the elder and their family with evaluating needs and coordinating the necessary resources. Including a professional from outside the family who can remain objective and help in preventing blame being placed on a family member. Worrying about our parents and family members who are aging in their homes can create stress in our lives.  Discussing the need for change with our parents can be a difficult and often uncomfortable task. Working with them to remain safe and independent can help you both achieve the common goal of safe independence.



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