Safety class has senior focus

Purpose is to make seniors more aware of limits

Educating seniors about the subtle changes that occur as people age is the focus of a community outreach course created by ENCARE (Emergency Nurses CARE), a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, VA.

The course, called Take Care, is aimed at people 55 and older. Its purpose is to reduce preventable injuries and deaths through lessons that increase awareness and promote healthy lifestyles. (For information on how to implement this course at your institution, see resource box at the end of this article.)

Susanne Heinzerling, RN, is a volunteer who teaches the course to seniors. Although she now works as a nurse practitioner for Mad River Valley Health Center in Weightsfield, VT, she worked 24 years in the emergency department. "I used to see a lot of injuries caused by household accidents," says Heinzerling.

That’s why the slide lecture, which lasts about 45 minutes, covers ways to make the house safer for older adults by installing handrails on bathtubs and toilets. Another safety measure discussed is using night lights to keep from becoming disoriented when waking from a sound sleep to get to the bathroom.

Heinzerling presents the information in a positive manner, in hopes that seniors will acknowledge the changes that come with age to prevent serious injury. For example, many seniors won’t use a cane even though it would help them become more stable on their feet.

Heinzerling shows them canes that are artistically beautiful. "I tell them that in Europe they are a sign of affluence," she says.

The course covers a wide range of safety and health issues, including:

Living alone.

A senior living alone often has poor dietary habits. "They tend to live on tea and toast," says Heinzerling. The course provides information on how to improve eating habits by going to the local senior center for lunch or becoming a part of the local home meal delivery program.

Driving problems.

Because seniors often have poor vision and slower reflexes, they need to be educated about changes in driving ability, says Heinzerling. "I have to remind people that with nighttime driving they have to use a little more caution," she explains.

Also, many seniors lose their ability to react quickly and some of their motor skills. For example, they may begin to make big, wide swing turns that make other drivers think they have the wrong blinker on so they pass on the wrong side.

Safety in walking.

Crossing the street can be hazardous for senior citizens when they don’t realize that they aren’t as quick as they used to be. "They must be reminded of how quick the light turns and how traffic moves out," says Heinzerling. Also, seniors need to be more careful when walking in back of driveways and through parking lots. It’s important that they watch for backup lights, because drivers look for other cars, not people, she explains.

Proper medication use.

Many seniors take several medications, so the potential for suffering from the ill effects of mixing over-the-counter drugs with prescriptions is greater. Also, by not reporting all the medications they take to a physician, there is the possibility that two physicians might prescribe the same drug.

The course also explains that the potency of generic drugs varies according to the manufacturer. While the core of the medication is the same, the shell varies from company to company, says Heinzerling. Therefore, if the drug is purchased in one location once and another location the next time, it might be up to 20% stronger or 20% weaker than the previous dose, she explains. Many seniors are not aware of this, she adds.

Alcohol use.

Some medications cannot be mixed with alcohol. Therefore, seniors need to be sure to read the labels of each prescription carefully, says Heinzerling. Also, it takes fewer drinks to impair driving ability as a person ages.

To get the word out about the program, Heinzerling, who attended a training course before becoming an instructor, contacts senior groups such as the senior center and local American Association of Retired Persons chapters. However, targeting seniors is a little different than the safety classes ENCARE designed for grade school children and teenagers.

First of all, seniors aren’t a captive audience, she explains. "A school kid is confined to the school room until the bell rings. With seniors, you don’t want to interfere with their bingo games," says Heinzerling. (For information on the safety classes designed for teens and grade school children, see Focus on Pediatrics, inserted in this issue.)


For more information on Take Care, the senior safety class created by ENCARE, contact:

ENCARE, 205 S. Whiting St., Suite 403, Alexandria, VA 22304. Telephone: (703) 370-4050. Fax: (703) 370-4005. E-mail: